Alittle man flew into the room, like a chip washed up by a wave under the pressure of the crowd that poured in behind him . . . He had long rust - coloured hair and glasses, a short trimmed reddish moustache and a small beard,” reported Maliantovich, Justice Minister. “His collar, shirt, cuffs and hands were those of a very dirty man.”
“The Provisional Government is here,” said Deputy Premier Konovalov. “What is your pleasure?”
“In the name of the Military - Revolutionary Committee,” replied Antonov - Ovseenko, “I declare all of you . . . under arrest.”
It was about 1:50 a.m. on 26 October. The new masters of the Winter Palace started to pillage, “pulling out carpets, curtains, linen, porcelain, plates.” One soldier stuck some ostrich feathers in his cap, while the old palace retainers, still in their blue, red and gold uniforms, tried to restrain the looters. There was no storming of the Winter Palace: more people were hurt filming the storming scene in Eisenstein’s movie. “The Neva,” Sagirashvili observed, “washed away Kerensky’s government.”
As the ministers were carted off to the Peter and Paul Fortress, Antonov - Ovseenko lost all control inside the palace, and some of the girls of the Women’s Shock Battalion were raped. “The matter of the wine - cellars became especially critical,” he recounts. Nicholas II’s cellars boasted Tokay from the age of Catherine the Great and stocks of Château d’Yquem 1847, the Emperor’s favourite, but:
the Preobrazhensky Regiment . . . got totally drunk. The Pavlovsky, our revolutionary buttress, also couldn’t resist. We sent guards from other picked units—all got utterly drunk. We posted guards from the Regimental Committees—they succumbed as well. We despatched armoured cars to drive away the crowd, but after a while they also began to weave suspiciously. When evening came, a violent bacchanalia overflowed.
Exasperated, Antonov - Ovseenko called the Petrograd Fire Brigade. “We tried flooding the cellars with water—but the firemen . . . got drunk instead.” The Commissars started smashing the bottles in Palace Square, but “the crowd drank from the gutters. The drunken ecstasy infected the entire city.”
Finally Lenin’s Council of People’s Commissars appointed a special Commissar of the Winter Palace with the highest authority, but, Antonov - Ovseenko notes drily, “This person also turned out not to be very reliable.”
At the Congress of Soviets, it was Kamenev, who, in spite of himself, announced that the Winter Palace had finally fallen. It was only then that Lenin removed his wig, washed off his makeup and emerged as the leader of Russia.1
Meanwhile Anna and Nadya Alliluyeva, keen to see the opening of the Congress, had walked to the Smolny and slipped into the great hall itself: “Judging by the excitement and cheers, we guessed something important had happened and there suddenly, in the crowd streaming towards us, we saw Stalin,” who beckoned them over.
“Oh it’s you! Delighted you’re here. Have you heard the news? The Winter Palace has fallen and our men are inside!”
The Bolsheviks almost collapsed with exhaustion. “At the time of the October [uprising],” explains Fyodor Alliluyev, Anna’s and Nadya’s eldest brother and Soso’s new assistant, “Comrade Stalin didn’t sleep for five days.” Sometimes they ate, sometimes they grabbed a catnap on the floor.
“The city was quiet, probably never so quiet in its history,” wrote John Reed. As the news arrived at Smolny that the city was finally in Bolshevik hands, Lenin began to relax, cracking jokes (at Kamenev’s expense) and reclining on newspapers on the floor. “The corridors were still full of hurrying men, hollow - eyed and dirty,” but in committee - rooms “people lay sleeping on the floor, guns beside them.”
The Bolshevik high command slept where they sat or bedded down on the floors of their Smolny offices. “Crushed by tiredness,” Stalin stayed awake drafting the Appeal to the People, until “he finally fell asleep while sitting in a chair behind his table,” says Fyodor Alliluyev. “The enraptured Lunarcharsky [People’s Commissar of Culture] tiptoed up to him as he slept and planted a kiss on his forehead. Comrade Stalin woke up and jovially laughed at A. V. Lunarcharsky for a long time.”
Lenin and Trotsky bedded down beside one another on a pile of newspapers. “You know,” sighed Lenin to Trotsky, “it makes one’s head spin to pass so quickly from persecutions and living - in - hiding to power!”2
At 6 a.m. on 26 October, as “a faint unearthly pallor [was] stealing over the silent streets, dimming the watchfires, the shadow of a terrible dawn grey - rising over Russia,” the “day broke on a city in the wildest excitement and confusion.” The streets quickly returned to normal. “The bourgeoisie,” notes Shlyapnikov, “from Guards officers to prostitutes,” reemerged onto the streets. As the Congress was supposed to meet at 1 p.m., the delegates started gathering first thing, but by 7 p.m. Lenin had still not appeared.
Finally, at 8:40 p.m., he arrived to uproarious applause—“this short stocky figure with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging, little eyes, a snubbish nose, a wide generous mouth, a strange popular leader,” reported Reed, “a leader purely by virtue of intellect, colourless—humourless, uncompromising and detached.”
“We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order!” declared Lenin simply. He spoke with one foot characteristically off the floor. “I noticed a hole in his shoe,” reports Molotov.
At 2:30 a.m., Kamenev* read out the new government on the stage of the Congress of Soviets. Soso appeared on the list as “J. V. Djugashvili - Stalin.” He was still not well known to the public nor admired by the Bolsheviks who had been in emigration. His obscurity in 1917 would always remain an embarrassing bruise on a very thin - skinned man, and he tried to correct it by a mendacious cult of personality. But in fact Lenin and an array of high Bolsheviks had long appreciated his ruthless competence.
“In those days,” says Fyodor Alliluyev, with such candour that his memoirs were never published, “Comrade Stalin was genuinely known only to the small circle of people who had come across him . . . in the political underground or had succeeded . . . in distinguishing real work and real devotion from chatter, noise [and] meaningless babble.”
The entire Soviet government now worked round the clock, in one room, at one table. “After the victory Stalin moved into the Smolny,” recalls Fyodor Alliluyev. “For the first three days, we didn’t leave,” says Molotov. “There was me, Zinoviev and Trotsky, then opposite were Stalin and Kamenev. We tried by fits and starts to picture the new life.” When Kamenev and Trotsky decided they wanted to abolish capital punishment in the army, recalled Stalin later, Lenin overheard them. “What nonsense!” he barked. “How can you have a revolution without shooting people?” Lenin meant it.
The coup had been surprisingly easy, but the life - and - death struggle to keep power started immediately. Lenin did not wish to share his government with the Mensheviks and SRs, but Kamenev insisted on opening negotiations to do just that. When these failed, he resigned. Meanwhile, Kerensky rallied Cossack forces on the Pulkovo Heights outside the city and the Menshevik - led railwaymen went on strike, demanding a coalition. Stalin, along with Sverdlov, Sergo and Dzerzhinsky, organized the defence of Petrograd.
Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin formed an inseparable troika in those first months in power. Besieged from outside and within, undermined by compromisers, bunglers and windbags inside his own Party, Lenin divided his grandees into “men of action” versus “tea - drinkers.” There were too many “tea - drinkers.” Had the Soviet Republic settled into peaceful stability, the tea - drinking tendency, represented by men like Kamenev and Bukharin, might have given it a very different direction. But it was not to be. Lenin spent almost every hour together with his grittiest henchmen. In these first hours, Lenin dictated an undated decree that reveals Stalin’s and Trotsky’s special place as follows:
Instructions to the guards at the reception of Sovnarkom
No one is permitted to enter without specific invitation except for:
President of Sovnarkom Lenin . . .
Then before the typed names of Lenin’s personal assistants is written in handwriting that is probably that of Lenin himself:
Narkom Foreign Affairs Trotsky
Narkom Nationalities Stalin
“Lenin could not get along without Stalin for even a single day,” wrote Stanislaw Pestkovsky, the Polish Bolshevik who now became Stalin’s chief assistant at the Commissariat of Nationalities. Lenin sometimes asked Stalin to countersign his Sovnarkom decrees. “Our Smolny office was under Lenin’s wing. In the course of the day, he’d call Stalin an endless number of times and would appear in our office and lead him away.” Once, Pestkovsky found both men up ladders examining maps together.
Stalin’s two Caucasian gangsters, Kamo and Tsintsadze, came to Petrograd. “I found Stalin alone in a room,” says Tsintsadze. “We were so happy to see one another.” But just then, Lenin wandered into the room.
“Meet Kote Tsintsadze,” Stalin said to Lenin (who already knew Kamo), “the old bank robber—terrorist of the Caucasus.”
Yet Stalin communicated with his assistant Pestkovsky only in “grunts,” and was too moody and taciturn to gossip with him, unlike the other loquacious Bolshevik magnates.*
On 29 November 1917 the Central Committee created the core leadership Bureau—the Chetverka, the Foursome, with Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Sverdlov as the most powerful men in Russia, authorized “to decide all emergency questions.” But Sverdlov, who became nominal head of state (Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet), spent his time running the Party Secretariat. As a result, as Trotsky recalls, “The Four became a troika.”
Lenin drove ahead with his radical and repressive measures: “Peace, Land, Bread!” He opened peace talks with Kaiserine Germany. When Trotsky, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, reported on progress, Lenin replied: “I’ll consult with Stalin and give you my answer.” On 27 October, opposition press was banned. At the Central Committee on 2 November, Lenin effectively created the dictatorship of the Bolshevik oligarchs. On the fourth, Sovnarkom gave itself the power to rule without the Soviets. The MRC initially acted as Lenin’s enforcers, but on 7 December he created an All - Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Counter - revolution and Sabotage, known by its acronym “Cheka,” with Dzerzhinsky as Chairman. The Cheka, precursor of the OGPU, NKVD, KGB and today’s FSB, had absolute supralegal power over life and death.
“In that case why should we bother with a People’s Commissar for Justice?” Isaak Shteinberg, a Left - SR, challenged Lenin. “Let’s honestly call it the Commissariat of Social Annihilation!”
“Well said!” replied Lenin. “That’s exactly how it’s going to be!”
He told another acquaintance: “We’re engaged in annihilation. Don’t you recall what Pisarev said: ‘Break, beat up everything, beat and destroy! Everything that’s being broken is rubbish and has no right to life! What survives is good.’” Lenin’s handwritten notes demanded the shooting, killing, hanging of “bloodsuckers . . . spiders . . . leeches.” He asked, “How can you make a revolution without firing - squads? If we can’t shoot White Guard saboteurs, what kind of revolution is this? Nothing but talk and a bowl of mush!” He demanded they “find tougher people.” But Stalin and Trotsky were tough enough. “We must put an end once and for all,” said Trotsky, “to the Papist - Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.” Stalin showed a similar taste for Terror. When Estonian Bolsheviks proposed liquidating “traitors” in the earliest days of the Revolution, he replied swiftly: “The idea of a concentration camp is excellent.”
He “began to feel more sure of himself,” writes Trotsky. “I soon noticed Lenin was ‘advancing’ Stalin, valuing his firmness, grit, stubbornness and slyness as qualities necessary in the struggle.”* Molotov, who loathed Trotsky, judges that “it was not without reason that Lenin recognized Stalin and Trotsky as the leaders who stood out from the rest as the most talented.” Soon even Sukhanov understood that Stalin “holds in his hands the fate of the Revolution and state.” The Georgian, says Trotsky, “became accustomed to power.”
Yet Stalin was never inevitable. The brains, confidence, intellectual intensity, political talents, faith in and experience of violence, touchiness, vindictiveness, charm, sensitivity, ruthlessness, lack of empathy, the sheer weird singularity of the man, were in place—but lacking a forum. In 1917, he found the forum.
He could not have risen to power at any other time in history: it required the synchronicity of man and moment. His unlikely rise as a Georgian who could rule Russia was only made possible by the internationalist character of Marxism. His tyranny was made possible by the beleaguered circumstances of Soviet Russia, the utopian fanaticism of its quasi - religious ideology, the merciless Bolshevik machismo, the slaughterous spirit of the Great War, and Lenin’s homicidal vision of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Stalin would not have been possible if Lenin had not, in the first days of the regime, defeated Kamenev’s milder way to create the machinery for so boundless and absolute a power. That was the forum for which Stalin was superbly equipped. Now Stalin could become Stalin.
Within months of October, Lenin and his magnates used that power to fight the Civil War. It was then that Stalin, along with his cohorts, experienced that unrestrained power to wage war and change society by random killing. Like boys on their first foxhunt, they were blooded by the exhilaration and swagger. Stalin’s character, damaged yet gifted, was qualified for, and fatally attracted to, such pitiless predations. Afterwards, the machine of repression, the flinthearted, paranoid psychology of perpetual conspiracy and the taste for extreme bloody solutions to all challenges, were not just ascendant but glamorized, institutionalized and raised to an amoral Bolshevik faith with messianic fervour. In a colossal bureaucracy run like a nepotistic village, Stalin showed himself a master of personal politics.* He was the patron of these brutal tendencies but also their personification: he was right when he blasphemously declared in 1929 that “the Party has made me in its own image.” He and the Party had developed together, but this creature of covert but boundless extremism and brooding, malevolent darkness could always go further still.
He grew up in the clannish Caucasus; he had spent his entire maturity in the conspiratorial underground, that peculiar milieu where violence, fanaticism and loyalty were the main coinage; he flourished in the jungle of constant struggle, drama and stress; he came to power as that rare thing—both man of violence and of ideas, an expert in gangsterism, as well as a devout Marxist; but, above all, he believed in himself and in his own ruthless leadership as the only way to govern a country in crisis and to promote a mere ideal to a real utopia.
In a limitless government run as a giant conspiracy of bloodletting and clan patronage, who was the most qualified to prosper?
The dance of power between Trotsky and Stalin started at the very beginning, at the first meeting of the new government, a historic occasion at which the personal peccadilloes and political wheeler - dealering clashed with the sanctity of dialectical materialism.
The first Cabinet—the Sovnarkom in Bolshevik acronym—was held in Lenin’s office in the Smolny, which was still so makeshift and amateurish that the only link with his new empire was a “cubby - hole for his telephone girl and typist” behind an unpainted wooden partition. It was surely no coincidence that Lenin’s two outstanding magnates, “Stalin and I,” writes Trotsky, “were the first to arrive.”
Then, from behind the wooden partition, the two of them overheard seductive and affectionate sighs: “a conversation of a rather tender nature” in the “thick basso of [People’s Commissar of the Navy] Dybenko, a blackbearded sailor, twenty - nine years old, a jolly and self - confident giant” who had recently “become intimate with Alexandra Kollontai, a woman of aristocratic antecedents approaching her forty - sixth year.” At this epoch - making moment, Stalin and Trotsky found themselves eavesdropping on Kollontai’s latest scandalous affair, about which “there’d been much gossip in Party circles.”
Trotsky and Stalin, two arrogant self - annointed Marxist messiahs, two magnificent administrators, deep thinkers, murderous enforcers, rank outsiders, a Jew and a Georgian, looked at each other. Stalin was amused, but Trotsky was shocked. “Stalin came up to me with a kind of unexpected jauntiness and pointing his shoulder towards the partition said, smirking: ‘That’s him with Kollontai, with Kollontai!’”* Trotsky was not amused:
“His gesture and laughter seemed to me out of place and unendurably vulgar especially on that occasion and in that place.”
“That’s their affair!” snapped Trotsky, at which “Stalin sensed he’d made a mistake.”
The amazing and unthinkable had happened: Stalin, the Georgian cobbler’s son, was close to the peak of a Russian oligarchical government, and almost instantly Trotsky was his natural rival.
Stalin, says Trotsky, “never again tried to engage me in conversation of a personal nature. Stalin’s face changed. His yellow eyes flashed with the glint of malice.”3
* Surprisingly, Lenin chose Kamenev to be the effective first Bolshevik head of state as Chairman of the Soviet Executive Committee, though he lasted only a few days. Sverdlov succeeded him.
* Pestkovsky’s first memoirs, when published in 1922, contained Stalin’s grunts and moodiness. Naturally, when these were republished in 1930 the grunts were gone.
* It is still widely believed that Stalinism was a distortion of Leninism. But this is contradicted by the fact that in the months after October they were inseparable. Indeed for the next five years Lenin promoted Stalin wherever possible. Lenin single - handedly pushed the Bolsheviks to frenzied bloodletting on orders that have recently been revealed in the archives and published in Richard Pipes’s Unknown Lenin. He knew what he was doing with Stalin, even though he realized that “that chef will cook up some spicy dishes.” Stalinism was not a distortion but a development of Leninism.
* Trotsky later claimed that Stalin amassed power as a bureaucratic mediocrity, but it was actually Yakov Sverdlov, assisted by Elena Stasova, who ran the Party machine. Stalin was not a born bureaucrat at all. He was a hard worker utterly dedicated to politics; indeed everything with Stalin was political, but he worked in an eccentric, structureless, unbureaucratic, almost bohemian, style that would not have succeeded in any other government, then or now. Lenin’s trust was won in the bank robberies and intrigues of the early years and, later, on the battlefields of the Civil War: Stalin was hardly in his office before 1920.
* Alexandra Kollontai always treated Stalin with old - world courtesy: she served as his Swedish Ambassador and died naturally. Dybenko was shot in the Great Terror.