The Finland Station, on Petrograd's Vyborg side, shortly before midnight on 3 April 1917: workers and soldiers, with red flags and banners, fill the station hall; and there is a military band. The square outside is packed with automobiles and tank-like armoured cars; and the cold night air is blue with smoke. A mounted searchlight sweeps over the faces of the crowd and across the facades of the buildings, momentarily lighting up the tram-lines and the outlines of the city beyond. There is a general buzz of expectation: Lenin's train is due. At last it pulls into the station; a thunderous Marseillaise booms around the hall; and the small and stocky figure of Lenin appears from the carriage, his Swiss wool coat and Homburg hat strangely out of place amidst the welcoming congregation of grey tunics and workers' caps. An armed Bolshevik escort leads him in military formation to the Tsar's former waiting-room, where a Soviet delegation is standing by to greet him, the latest returning hero of the revolutionary struggle, after more than a decade of exile abroad.47
For Lenin this was the end of an unexpected journey. The February Revolution had found him in Zurich and, like most of the socialist leaders, it had caught him by surprise. 'It's staggering!' he exclaimed to Krupskaya when he heard the news. 'It's so incredibly unexpected!' Lenin was determined to get back to Russia as soon as possible. But how could he cross the German lines? At first he thought of crossing the North Sea by steamer, as Plekhanov had already done. But the British were hostile to the Russian Marxists: Trotsky and Bukharin had both been detained in England on their way back to Russia from New York. Then he thought of travelling through Germany disguised as a deaf, dumb and blind Swede — until Krupskaya had joked that he was bound to give himself away by muttering abuse against the Mensheviks in his sleep. In a moment of desperation he had even considered hiring a private aeroplane to fly across eastern Europe; but then the thought of the dangers involved put him off this harebrained scheme. When it came to putting himself at physical risk, Lenin always had been something of a coward.*48
It was Martov who came up with the idea of exchanging the Russian Marxist exiles in Switzerland for the German citizens interned in Russia. With the help of their Swiss comrades, the Russian exiles made contact with the German authorities, who quickly saw the advantage of letting the Bolsheviks, and other socialist groups opposed to the war, go back to Russia to stir up discord there. They even helped to finance their activities, although this should not necessarily be taken to mean, as many people were later to argue, that the Bolsheviks were German agents.49 The Provisional Government was not keen on the idea of an exchange — Miliukov was determined to oppose it in view of Lenin's well-known defeatist views — and dragged its heels over the negotiations. Martov and most of the Menshevik exiles were prepared to wait. But Lenin and thirty-one of his comrades were impatient enough to go ahead with the German plan without the sanction of the Russian government. On 27 March they left on a German train from Gottmadingen on the Swiss border and travelled via Frankfurt, Berlin and Stockholm to Petrograd. The train, which had only one carriage, was 'sealed' in the sense that no inspections of passports or luggage were carried out by the Germans on the way. Lenin worked alone in his own compartment, while his fellow travellers, much to his annoyance, drank and sang in the corridor and the other compartments. Smoking was confined to the lavatory and Lenin ordered that all non-smokers should be issued with a 'first class' pass that gave them priority to use the lavatory over the smokers with their 'second class' passes. As Radek quipped, it seemed from this piece of minor social planning that Lenin was already preparing himself to 'assume the leadership of the revolutionary government'.50 The 'sealed train' was an early model of Lenin's state dictatorship.
* Valentinov, who knew Lenin well in Switzerland, wrote: 'He would never have gone on to the streets to fight on the barricades, or stand in the line of fire. Not he, but other, humbler people were to do that . . . Lenin ran headlong even from emigre meetings which seemed likely to end in a scuffle. His rule was to "get away while the going was good" — to use his own words — meaning from any threat of danger. During his stay in Petersburg in 1905—6 he so exaggerated the danger to himself and went to such extremes in his anxiety for self-preservation that one was bound to ask whether he was not simply a man without personal courage.'
Lenin arrived a stranger to Russia. Apart from a six-month stay in 1905—6, he had spent the previous seventeen years in exile abroad. Most of the workers who turned out to meet him at the Finland Station could never have seen him before.* 'I know very little of Russia,' Lenin once told Gorky. 'Simbirsk, Kazan, Petersburg, exile — that is all I know.' During 1917 he would often claim that the mass of the ordinary people were even further to the Left than the Bolsheviks. Yet he had no experience of them, and knew only what his party agents told him (which was often what he wanted to hear). Between 5 July and the October seizure of power Lenin did not make a single public appearance. He barely set foot in the provinces. The man who was set to become the dictator of Russia had almost no direct knowledge of the way its people lived. Apart from two years as a lawyer, he had never even had a job. He was a 'professional revolutionary', living apart from society and supporting himself from the party's funds and from the income of his mother's estate (which he continued to draw until her death in 1916). According to Gorky, it was this ignorance of everyday work, and the human suffering which it entailed, which had bred in Lenin a 'pitiless contempt, worthy of a nobleman, for the lives of the ordinary people .. . Life in all its complexity is unknown to Lenin. He does not know the ordinary people. He has never lived among them.'51
'Well there it is,' Lenin wrote to Kollontai on 2 March. 'This first stage of the revolution (born of the war) will be neither the last, nor confined to Russia.' Lenin was already thinking of a second revolution — a revolution of his own. In his five 'Letters from Afar', written between 7 and 26 March, he mapped out his party's programme for the transition from 'the first to the second stage of the revolution': no support for the Provisional Government; a clean break with the Mensheviks and the Second International; the arming of the workers; the foundation of Soviet power (the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the poorest peasants'); and the conclusion of an immediate peace. Lenin boiled all this down into ten punchy theses — his famous April Theses — during the train journey from Switzerland and began to agitate for them upon his arrival at the Finland Station. Brushing aside the formal welcome of the Soviet leaders, the returning exile proclaimed the start of a 'worldwide Socialist revolution!', and then went out into the square, where he climbed on to the bonnet of a car and gave a speech to the waiting crowd. Above all the noise Sukhanov heard only the occasional phrase: '. . . any part in the shameful imperialist slaughter . .. lies and frauds . . . capitalist pirates . . .' Lenin was then taken off in an armoured car, which proceeded with a military band, workers and soldiers waving red flags, through the Vyborg streets to the Bolshevik headquarters — the palace of Kshesinskaya, the former ballerina and sometime mistress of the Tsar.52
* Many of the workers who came to greet Lenin may have turned up on the expectation of free beer. Welcoming receptions for returning party leaders had become a regular feature of life in the capital since the revolution, and for many of the workers they had become a pretext for a street party. This was particularly relevant in the case of Lenin's return from exile, since it coincided with the Easter holiday.
38 The Tsar's soldiers fire on the demonstrating workers in front of the Winter Palace, 9 January ('Bloody Sunday') 1905.
39 Demonstrators confront a group of mounted cossacks on the Nevsky Prospekt in 1905.
40 The opening of the State Duma in the Coronation Hall of the Winter Palace, 27 April 1906. The two Russias - autocratic and democratic - confronted each other on either side of the throne. On the left, the appointees of the crown; on the right, the Duma delegates.
41 The Tauride Palace, the citadel of Russia's fragile democracy between 1906 and 1918.
42 Petr Stolypin in 1909. Many things about the Prime Minister - his provincial background and his brilliant intellect - made him an outsider to his own bureaucracy.
43 Patriotic volunteers pack parcels for the Front, Petrograd, 1915. The war campaign activated and politicized the public.
44 The smart set of Petrograd see in the New Year of 1917. Note the anglophilia, the whisky and champagne. This sort of ostentatious hedonism had become quite common among the upper classes; and at a time of enormous wartime hardships it was deeply resented by the workers.
45 Troops pump out a trench on the Northern Front. The poor construction of the trenches, a science which the tsarist Staff had never thought worth learning, was a major cause of the huge Russian losses in the First World War.
46 Cossacks patrol the streets of Petrograd, early February 1917. Recruited from the poorest regions of the Kuban and the Don, they soon joined the revolutionary crowds.
47 A 'pharaon' - the slang name for a policeman - is arrested by a group of soldiers during the February Days in Petrograd.
48-9 The destruction of tsarist symbols. Above: a group of Moscow workers playing with the stone head of Alexander II in front of a movie camera. Below, a crowd on the Nevsky Prospekt in Petrograd stand around a bonfire with torn-down tsarist emblems during the February Days. Here, too, the display for the camera was an important part of the event.
50 The crowd outside the Tauride Palace, 27 February 1917.
51 Soldiers on the Western Front receive the announcement of the abdication of Nicholas II.
On the following day Lenin came with his own armed escort to the Tauride Palace and presented his Theses to a stunned assembly of the Social Democrats. He had turned the Party Programme on its head. Instead of accepting the need for a 'bourgeois stage' of the revolution, as all the Mensheviks and most of the Bolsheviks did, Lenin was calling for a new revolution to transfer power to 'the proletariat and the poorest peasants'. In the present revolutionary conditions, he argued, a parliamentary democracy would be a 'retrograde step' compared with the power of the Soviets, the direct self-rule of the proletariat. Theoretically, the April Theses had their roots in the lessons which Lenin had learned from the failure of the 1905 Revolution: that the Russian bourgeoisie was too feeble on its own to carry out a democratic revolution; and that this would have to be completed by the proletariat instead. The Theses also had their roots in the war, which had led him to conclude that, since the whole of Europe was on the brink of a socialist revolution, the Russian Revolution did not have to confine itself to bourgeois democratic objectives.* But the practical implications of the Theses — that the Bolsheviks should cease to support the February Revolution and should move towards the establishment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat — went far beyond anything that all but the most extreme left-wingers in the party had ever considered before. It was still not clear whether Lenin envisaged the violent overthrow of the Provisional Government, and, if so, when this should happen. For the moment, he seemed content to limit the party's tasks to mass agitation. The Bolsheviks still lacked a majority in the Soviets; and Russia, as Lenin pointed out, was 'now the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world'. But the sheer audacity of his speech, coming as it did at a joint SD assembly for the party's reunification, ensured a furious uproar in the hall. The Mensheviks booed and whistled. Tsereteli accused Lenin of ignoring the lessons of Marx and quoted Engels on the dangers of a premature seizure of power. Goldenberg said that the Bolshevik leader had abandoned Marxism altogether so as to occupy the anarchist throne vacated by Bakunin. B. O. Bogdanov condemned the Theses as 'the ravings of a madman'. Even Semen Kanatchikov, the Bolshevik worker we met in Chapter 3, who had come all the way from the Urals to hear Lenin speak, was flabbergasted by what he saw as the 'unrealistic nature of his ideas, which seemed to all of us to go far beyond the realms of what it was possible to achieve'. It seemed that Lenin, having spent so many years in exile abroad, had become out of touch with the realities of political life in Russia. Returning from the Tauride Palace that evening, Skobelev, the Menshevik, assured Prince Lvov: 'Lenin is a has-been.'53
* Trotsky had reached the same conclusions, and it is possible that his theory of the 'permanent revolution' partly influenced the April Theses.
Which is just what he might have become, had it not been for one fact: that he was Lenin. All the odds were stacked against him in his struggle for the party to adopt the April Theses. The majority of the Bolsheviks had already pledged their tentative support for the Provisional Government prior to Lenin's arrival (Kollontai was the only major Bolshevik to support the April Theses from the start). Only the Vyborg Committee, the stronghold of Bolshevik extremism in the capital, came out in favour of Soviet power. Stalin and Kamenev, who returned from Siberian exile in mid-March and took over control of Pravda, strengthened this cautious approach. Like the Mensheviks, they assumed that the 'bourgeois' stage of the revolution still had a long way to run, that the dual power system was thus necessitated by objective conditions, and that the immediate tasks of the Bolsheviks lay in constructive work within the social democratic movement as a whole. Trotsky later accused them of acting more like a loyal opposition than the representatives of a workers' revolutionary party. The moderate motions of Kamenev and Stalin were adopted at the All-Russian Bolshevik Conference at the end of March: conditional support for the Provisional Government; the continuation of the war; support for the Soviet leaders. The Bolsheviks even agreed to explore the possibilities of reuniting with the Mensheviks. They were already working together, along with the SRs and other socialists, in most of the provincial Soviets. Far away from the factional disputes of their party leaders in the capital, the old camaraderie of the underground remained very strong in the provinces, and Lenin's combative factionalism was strongly resented and resisted by those provincial Bolsheviks who were either unwilling or simply unable to break their ties with the other left-wing groups.54
Lenin always liked a fight. It was as if the whole of his life had been a preparation for the struggle that awaited him in 1917. 'That is my life!' he had confessed to Inessa Armand in 1916. 'One fighting campaign after another.' The campaign against the Populists, the campaign against the Economists, the campaign for the organization of the party along centralist lines, the campaign for the boycott of the Duma, the campaign against the Menshevik liquidators', the campaign against Bogdanov and Mach, the campaign against the war — these had been the defining moments of his life, and much of his personality had been invested in these political battles. As a private man there was nothing much to Lenin: he gave himself entirely to politics. There was no 'private Lenin' behind the politician. All biographies of the Bolshevik leader become unavoidably discussions of his political ideas and influence. Lenin's personal life was extraordinarily dull. He dressed and lived like a middle-aged provincial clerk, with precisely fixed hours for meals, sleep, work and leisure. He liked everything to be neat and orderly. He was punctilious about his financial accounts, noting on slips of paper everything he spent on food, on train fares, on stationery, and so on. Every morning he tidied his desk. His books were ordered alphabetically. He sewed buttons on to his pin-striped suit, removed stains from it with petrol and kept his bicycle surgically clean.55
There was a strong puritanical streak in Lenin's character which later manifested itself in the political culture of his regime. Asceticism was a common trait of the revolutionaries of Lenin's generation. They were all inspired by the self-denying revolutionary hero Rakhmetev in Chernyshevksy's novel What Is To Be Done? By suppressing his own sentiments, by denying himself the pleasures of life, Lenin tried to strengthen his resolve and to make himself, like Rakhmetev, insensitive to the suffering of others. This, he believed, was the 'hardness' required by every successful revolutionary: the ability to spill blood for political ends. 'The terrible thing in Lenin', Struve once remarked, 'was that combination in one person of self-castigation, which is the essence of all real asceticism, with the castigation of other people as expressed in abstract social hatred and cold political cruelty.' Even as the leader of the Soviet state Lenin lived the spartan lifestyle of the revolutionary underground. Until March 1918 he and Krupskaya occupied a barely furnished room in the Smolny Institute, a former girls' boarding school, sleeping on two narrow camp-beds and washing themselves with cold water from a bowl. It was more like a prison cell than the suite of the dictator of the biggest country in the world. When the government moved to Moscow they lived with Lenin's sister in a modest three-room apartment within the Kremlin and took their meals in the cafeteria. Like Rakhmetev, Lenin did weight training to build up his muscles. It was all part of the macho culture (the black leather jackets, the militant rhetoric, the belief in action and the cult of violence) that was the essence of Bolshevism. Lenin did not smoke, he did not really drink, and, apart from his romantic friendship with Inessa Armand, he was not interested in beautiful women. Krupskaya called him 'Ilich', his popular name in the party, and he called her 'comrade'. She was more like Lenin's personal secretary than his wife, and it was probably not bad luck that their marriage was childless. Lenin had no place for sentiment in his life. 'I can't listen to music too often,' he once admitted after a performance of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata. 'It makes me want to say kind, stupid things, and pat the heads of people. But now you have to beat them on the head, beat them without mercy.'56
Lenin's interests in literature were, like everything else, determined by its social and political content. He only bothered with books which he thought might be useful to him. He admired Pushkin for what he simplistically supposed to be his opposition to autocracy, and he liked Nekrasov for his realistic depiction of the oppressed masses. He had read Goethe's Faust whilst teaching himself German in Siberia, and had even learned some of Mephistopheles's speeches off by heart; but he never showed any interest in any of Goethe's other works. He refused to read Dostoevsky, dismissing his novel The Possessed, which had tried to expose the psychotic nature of the revolutionary, as 'a piece of reactionary filth ... I have absolutely no desire to waste my time on it. I looked through the book and threw it away. I don't read such literature — what good is it to me?'57
The root of this philistine approach to life was a burning ambition for power. The Mensheviks joked that it was impossible to compete with a man, such as Lenin, who thought about revolution for twenty-four hours every day. Lenin was driven by an absolute faith in his own historical destiny. He did not doubt for a moment, as he had once put it, that he was the man who was to wield the 'conductor's baton' in the party. This was the message he brought back to Russia in April 1917. Those who had known him before the war noticed a dramatic change in his personality. 'How he had aged,' recalled Roman Gul', who had met him briefly in 1905. 'Lenin's whole appearance had altered. And not only that. There was none of his old geniality, his friendliness or comradely humour, in his relations with other people. The new Lenin that arrived was cynical, secretive and rude, a conspirator "against everyone and everything", trusting no one, suspecting everyone, and determined to launch his drive for power.' Chernov also noted his single-minded drive for power in a brilliant satirical portrait of the Bolshevik leader published in Delo naroda:
Lenin possesses an imposing wholeness. He seems to be made of one chunk of granite. And he is all round and polished like a billiard ball. There is nothing you can get hold of him by. He rolls with irrepressible speed. But he could repeat to himself the well-known phrase: 'Je ne sais pas ou je vais, mais j'y vais resolument'. Lenin possesses a devotion to the revolutionary cause which permeates his entire being. But to him the revolution is embodied in his person. Lenin possesses an outstanding mind, but it is a ... mind of one dimension — more than that, a unilinear mind ... He is a man of one-sided will and consequently a man with a stunned moral sensitivity.58
Lenin had never been tolerant of dissent within his party's ranks. Bukharin complained that he 'didn't give a damn for the opinions of others'. Lunacharsky claimed that Lenin deliberately 'surrounded himself with fools' who would not dare question him. During Lenin's struggle for the April Theses this domineering attitude was magnified to almost megalomaniac proportions. Krupskaya called it his 'rage' — the frenzied state of her husband when engaged in clashes with his political rivals — and it was an enraged Lenin whom she had to live with for the next five years. During these fits Lenin acted like a man possessed by hatred and anger. His entire body was seized with extreme nervous tension, and he could neither sleep nor eat. His outward manner became vulgar and coarse. It was hard to believe that this was a cultivated man. He mocked his opponents, both inside and outside the party, in crude and violent language. They were 'blockheads', 'bastards', 'dirty scum', 'prostitutes', 'cunts', 'shits', 'cretins', 'Russian fools', 'windbags', 'stupid hens' and 'silly old maids'. When the rage subsided Lenin would collapse in a state of exhaustion, listlessness and depression, until the rage erupted again. This manic alternation of mood was characteristic of Lenin's psychological make-up. It continued almost unrelentingly between 1917 and 1922, and must have contributed to the brain haemorrhage from which he eventually died.55
Much of Lenin's success in 1917 was no doubt explained by his towering domination over the party. No other political party had ever been so closely tied to the personality of a single man. Lenin was the first modern party leader to achieve the status of a god: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao Zedong were all his successors in this sense. Being a Bolshevik had come to imply an oath of allegiance to Lenin as both the leader' and the 'teacher' of the party. It was this, above all, which distinguished the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks (who had no clear leader of their own). By comparison with Lenin, all the other leading Bolsheviks were political midgets. Take Zinoviev. He was a brilliant orator but, as his great rival Trotsky put it, he was nothing else. For his speeches to produce results, 'he had to have a tranquillising certainty that he was to be relieved of the political responsibility by a reliable and strong hand. Lenin gave him this certainty.' Or take Kamenev. It was he who led the opposition to the April Theses, and, more than any other Bolshevik, argued the case for a moderate political alternative to Lenin's revolutionary strategy. Yet Kamenev was much too soft to be a real leader. Lunacharsky called him 'flabby'; Stankevich found him 'so gentle that it seemed that he himself was ashamed of his position'; while George Denike compared him to an old schoolmaster and noted his fondness for wearing slippers. Kamenev was far too weak to stand up against the 'hard men' in the party. He might balk at some of their policies but he always followed them in the end.60
Lenin's domination of the party had more to do with the culture of the party than with his own charisma. His oratory was grey. It lacked the brilliant eloquence, the pathos, the humour, the vivid metaphors, the colour or the drama of a speech by Trotsky or Zinoviev. Lenin, moreover, had the handicap of not being able to pronounce his 'r's'.* Yet his speeches had an iron logic, and Lenin had the knack of finding easy slogans, which he crammed into the heads of his listeners by endless repetition. He spoke with his thumbs thrust under his armpits, rocking back and forward on his heels, as if in preparation to launch himself, like a human rocket, into the listening crowd (this is how he was portrayed in the hagiographic portraits painted during the Soviet era). Gorky, who heard Lenin speak for the first time in 1907, thought he 'spoke badly' to start with: 'but after a minute I, like everybody else, was absorbed in his speech. It was the first time I had heard complicated political questions treated so simply. There was no striving after beautiful phrases. He presented every word clearly, and revealed his exact thought with great ease.' Potresov, who had known and worked with Lenin since 1894, explained his appeal by a curious 'hypnotic power':
Only Lenin was followed unquestioningly as the indisputable leader, as it was only Lenin who was that rare phenomenon, particularly in Russia — a man of iron will and indomitable energy, capable of instilling fanatical faith in the movement and the cause, and possessed of equal faith in himself. Once upon a time I, too, was impressed by this will-power of Lenin's, which seemed to make him into a 'chosen leader'.61
And yet it was more than the dominance of Lenin's personality that ensured the victory of his ideas in the party. The Bolshevik rank and file were not simply Lenin's puppets — he had been in exile too long for that — and their initial reservations about his call for a second revolution were strong enough for him to have to do more than simply lay down the party line for them to support it. The idea that the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was a monolithic organization tightly controlled by Lenin is a myth — a myth which used to be propagated by the Soviet establishment, and one which is still believed (for quite different motives) by right-wing historians in the West. In fact the party was quite undisciplined; it had many different factions, both ideological and geographical; and the leadership, which was itself divided, often proved unable to impose its will on them. Between April and October, and after that in the bitter struggles over Brest-Litovsk, the party was split from top to bottom by a series of ideological conflicts, in which Lenin, at least to begin with, often found himself in a small minority. And if in the end he always got his way, this was due not just to his domination of the party but also to his many political skills, including persuasion, tactful retreat and compromise, threats of resignation and ultimatums, demagogy and appeals to the rank and file.
* Gorbachev had a similar handicap.
Three factors worked in Lenin's favour during his struggle for the April Theses — one on the Right, one in the Centre, and one on the Left of the Bolshevik Party. On the Right the effect of the Theses was to impel a number of Bolshevik veterans into the Menshevik camp, where they believed the tenets of orthodox Marxism would be better respected. Some also found refuge in the intermediate group around Gorky's newspaper, Novaia zhizri, of which more later. The Centre, which had rallied around Kamenev to begin with, was gradually won over by Lenin, as he toned down the radical aspects of his April Theses. At the All-Russian Party Conference on 24—9 April he won a majority against Kamenev by accepting that a 'lengthy period of agitation' would be needed before the masses would be ready to follow the Bolsheviks to the next stage of the revolution. He was thus abandoning the call for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government which many Bolsheviks had seen as the implication of his April Theses and which they had feared would plunge the country into civil war. Meanwhile, the left wing of the party was strengthened in the spring by the massive enrolment of workers and soldiers as new members. It was these lower-class party members who comprised the majority of the Bolshevik delegates at the April Party Conference — 149 of them in all, representing nearly 80,000 members throughout the country. They tended to be more radical than their party leaders. Knowing little of Marxist theory, they could not understand the need for a 'bourgeois revolution'. Why did their leaders want to reach socialism in two stages when they could get there in one? Hadn't enough blood already been spilled in February? And why should they allow the bourgeoisie to strengthen itself in power, if this was only going to make the task of removing them later even harder? The April Theses, with their call for immediate Soviet power, made more sense to them, and Lenin made a conscious effort to take advantage of this by speaking at numerous local party and factory meetings in the capital. He even swapped his Homburg hat for a worker's cap in an effort to make himself look more 'proletarian'.62
The April crisis emphasized Lenin's message among the lower-class rank and file. Miliukov's behaviour seemed to prove his point that peace could not be attained through the 'imperialist' war aims of the Provisional Government. It strengthened the 'us-and-them' mentality of the radical workers and soldiers towards the 'bourgeois ministers'. Some of the Bolsheviks in the party's Petrograd organization attempted to use the demonstrations of 20—I April as a springboard for the overthrow of the Provisional Government. A Bolshevik activist from the Putilov factory, S. la. Bogdatiev, led the demonstrators on to the streets with revolutionary banners. It is not clear what the role of the Bolshevik leadership was in all of this. The later Soviet version was that Bogdatiev and his comrades acted on their own initiative. But some Western historians have claimed that the Central Committee must have authorized their actions and only distanced itself from them when the putsch failed. There is no real evidence for this claim and its basic assumption — that the party was a tightly disciplined body — is in any case unfounded. The Central Committee had all along been opposed to the seizure of power, and the demonstrations evidently took them by surprise. Lenin, it is true, had favoured the idea of turning the demonstrations into a show of strength. But he could not be sure of the party's support, nor of the support of the masses, should this result in a struggle for power, and so he adopted a wait-and-see approach. No doubt if the Provisional Government had been overthrown, he would have claimed the victory. But as soon as order had been restored he condemned the 'adventurism' of the Petersburg 'hot-heads'. His main concern was to appease the centrist elements at the Bolshevik Conference. He told them on 24 April:
We had only wanted a peaceful reconnaissance of our enemy's forces and not to give battle. But the Petersburg Committee moved 'a wee bit too far to the left'. To move a 'wee bit left' at the moment of action was inept.. . It occurred because of imperfections in our organization. Were there mistakes? Yes, there were. Only those who don't act don't make mistakes. But to organize well — that's a difficult task.63
Lenin's dilemma was this: if the Bolsheviks tried to seize power before the party or its supporters among the masses were properly organized for it, then they ran the risk of defeat and isolation, like the Paris Commune of 1871, whose fate haunted the Bolshevik leaders throughout 1917 and 1918; but if they failed to keep up with their revolutionary vanguard — the Kronstadt sailors, the Vyborg workers and the Petrograd garrison — then they were in danger of losing their sharpest striking force, which would dissipate itself in fruitless outbursts of anarchic violence. The history of the Bolshevik Party and its factional disputes in 1917 revolved around the problem of how to keep the energies of this revolutionary vanguard in line with the rest of the masses.
The Kronstadt Naval Base, an island of sailor-militants in the Gulf of Finland just off Petrograd, was by far the most rebellious stronghold of this Bolshevik vanguard. The sailors were young trainees who had seen very little military activity during the war. They had spent the previous year cooped up on board their ships with their officers, who treated them with more than the usual sadistic brutality since the normal rules of naval discipline did not apply to trainees. Each ship was a tinderbox of hatred and violence. During the February Days the sailors mutinied with awesome ferocity. Admiral Viren, the Base Commander, was hacked to death with bayonets, and dozens of other officers were murdered, lynched or imprisoned in the island dungeons. The old naval hierarchy was completely destroyed and effective power passed to the Kronstadt Soviet. It was an October in February. The authority of the Provisional Government was never really established, nor was military order restored. Keren-sky, the Minister of Justice, proved utterly powerless in his repeated efforts to gain jurisdiction over the imprisoned officers, despite rumours in the bourgeois press that they had been brutally tortured.
The Kronstadt sailors were young (half of them were below the age of twenty-three), almost all of them were literate, and most of them were politicized by the propaganda of the far-left parties. By the start of May the Bolsheviks had recruited over 3,000 members at the naval base. Together with the Anarchists and the SRs, they controlled the Kronstadt Soviet. On 16 May the Soviet declared itself a sovereign power and rejected the authority of the Provisional Government and its appointed Commissar at the naval base. It was, in effect, the unilateral declaration of a 'Kronstadt Soviet Republic'. The Petrograd Soviet denounced the rebels as 'defectors from the revolutionary democracy'. The bourgeoisie of Petrograd was terrified by the thought that they were now at the mercy of this militant fortress, which at any moment might attack the capital. 'In their eyes', recalled Raskolnikov, one of the sailors' Bolshevik leaders, 'Kronstadt was a symbol of savage horror, the devil incarnate, a terrifying spectre of anarchy, a nightmare rebirth of the Paris Commune on Russian soil.' The Kronstadt Bolsheviks had played a major part in framing the 16 May declaration. But their action was not supported by the Bolshevik leaders in the capital.* Lenin was furious with his Kronstadt lieutenants for failing to observe party discipline. It was premature to think of the seizure of power against the authority of the Soviet, and he ordered them to call him every day for instructions until the crisis was resolved. Tsereteli was sent by the Petrograd Soviet to negotiate a settlement with the Kronstadt leaders, who agreed to accept the authority of the Provisional Government in return for their own elected Commissar. By 24 May the rebellion was over. Yet the Kronstadt sailors were to remain a threatening source of militancy, as the events of June, July and October were to show.64
* Trotsky had encouraged the declaration. Speaking in the Kronstadt Soviet on 14 May he had said that what was good for Kronstadt would later be good for any other town: 'You are ahead and the rest have fallen behind.' Trotsky, however, was not yet a member of the Bolshevik Party.
The other great bastion of Bolshevik militancy was the Vyborg district of Petrograd. The Vyborg party organization had over 5,000 Bolshevik members by the start of May. It was there that the most strike-prone metal factories were located — Russian Renault, Nobel, New Lessner, Erikson, Puzyrev, Vulcan, Phoenix and the Metal Works — and most of them were under the Bolsheviks' sway. These factories contained an inflammable mixture of young and literate metal-workers, who tended to be easily influenced by the Bolsheviks' militant slogans, and the less skilled immigrant workers who had flooded into the cities during the industrial boom of the war, and who consequently had suffered most from the double squeeze of low wages and high rents. Both groups were inclined to engage in violence on the streets. The Vyborg side was also the adopted home of the First Machine-Gun Regiment, the most highly trained and literate and also the most Bolshevized troops in Petrograd, with around 10,000 men and 1,000 machine-guns. During the February Days these machine-gunners had marched from their barracks at Oranienbaum into Petrograd to take part in the mutiny. Militant and self-assertive, they saw themselves as the heroes of the revolution, and refused to return to their barracks so long as the 'bourgeoisie' was 'in power'. In effect, as everyone knew, they were holding the Provisional Government to ransom.63
The left-wing Bolsheviks, with their fighting resolve strengthened by these militant groups, advanced the idea of staging an armed demonstration on 10 June as a show of strength against the Provisional Government. The idea originated in the Military Organization, established by the Bolsheviks in the Petrograd garrison, which promised to bring out 60,000 troops. It soon received the backing of the Kronstadt sailors, who staged a dress rehearsal on 4 June with a march past in military ranks to salute the fallen heroes of the February Days. The Petersburg Bolshevik Committee was also showing signs of coming round in favour. They argued that an outlet had to be found for the soldiers and workers to express their anger at the government's preparations for the new offensive in the war campaign, and that if the Bolsheviks failed to lead the demonstration they might turn away from it and dissipate their anger in undirected violence. The party could not afford to waste the energies of its revolutionary vanguard. But the Central Committee was split, with Lenin, Sverdlov and Stalin (who had turned through 180 degrees since Lenin's return to Russia) in favour of the demonstration, and Kamenev, Zinoviev and Nogin against it on the grounds that the party still lacked sufficient mass support to justify the risks of all but calling for the seizure of power. A final decision was put off until 9 June.
By that time a majority of the Central Committee had come round to support the idea of an armed demonstration. On 8 June twenty-eight factories had gone on strike in the capital to protest against the government's attempt to expel the Anarchists from their headquarters in the former tsarist minister Durnovo's villa, on the Vyborg side.* Fifty Kronstadt sailors came armed to defend the Anarchists against the government troops. The capital was on the brink of a bloody confrontation, and the moment seemed ripe for an organized show of force. The Mensheviks later argued that the Bolsheviks were prepared to exploit this opportunity for the seizure of power. Sukhanov even claimed that Lenin had worked out elaborate military plans for a Bolshevik coup d'etat, right down to the precise role of specific regiments in the seizure of strategic installations. But there is no evidence for this. It is true that at the First Ail-Russian Soviet Congress on 4 June Lenin had declared his party's readiness 'to assume power at any moment'. But if he was really planning an insurrection, he would hardly have given a public warning of it. Some of the secondary Bolshevik leaders, such as M. la. Latsis of the Vyborg Committee, who had close connections with the First Machine-Gun Regiment, certainly wanted to turn the demonstration into a full-scale uprising. But most of the senior leaders seemed to have viewed it as an exploratory test of strength and as a means of putting pressure on the Soviet Congress to take power itself. When the Soviet banned the demonstration on the evening of 9 June, five of the Bolshevik leaders (Lenin, Sverdlov, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Nogin) reconvened to call it off. Their more militant comrades protested furiously. Stalin threatened to resign (an offer that was unfortunately rejected) and accused the Central Committee of 'intolerable wavering'. But Lenin insisted that it was premature for the party to risk everything on a stand against the Soviet. The whole of his strategy in 1917, seen not least in the October seizure of power, was to use the cloak of Soviet legitimation to conceal the ambitions of his party. If the armed demonstration had gone ahead, the Bolsheviks would almost certainly have been expelled from the Soviet and the major strategic thrust of his April Theses — mass agitation for Soviet power — would have been undermined altogether.66
On 18 June the Soviet sponsored its own demonstration in Petrograd. The aim was to rally mass support behind the slogan of 'revolutionary unity', a by-word for the Soviet's continued participation in the coalition, and, from the viewpoint of those who were becoming more radicalized, probably a more acceptable slogan to the call for unconditional support of the government. The Bolsheviks resolved to take part in the march with banners calling for All Power to the Soviets!', and most of the 400,000 marchers who came out did so under this slogan.67 Perhaps the supporters of the Soviet leaders had deliberately stayed away, as some of the press later suggested. Or perhaps, as seems more likely, the demonstrators did not understand the ideological differences between the Bolsheviks and the Soviet leaders and marched under the banners of the former on the false assumption that it was a mark of loyalty to the latter. Either way, it was a major propaganda victory for the Bolsheviks and did much to encourage their plans in July for another, far more consequential, armed confrontation with the Provisional Government.
* Popular legend had it that the Anarchists had turned the villa into a madhouse, where orgies, sinister plots and witches' sabbaths were held, but when the Procurator arrived he found it in perfect order with part of the garden used as a creche for the workers' children.