XI Lenins Revolution

1 The Art of Insurrection

Some of the revolution's most dramatic scenes were to be played out in a school for the daughters of the nobility. The Smolny Institute, a vast, ochre-coloured, classical palace on the outskirts of the capital, had lain more or less empty since the fall of the Tsar. After the July Days the Soviet Executive had been forced to move its headquarters there from the more prestigious Tauride Palace. From that point on it became, in the words of Sukhanov, the 'internal arena of the revolution'. The Second All-Russian Soviet Congress of October, where Soviet power was proclaimed, took place in the white-colonnaded ballroom, where the schoolgirls had once perfected their waltzes and polkas.

The Smolny had none of the calm architectural grace of the Tauride Palace. Like most girls' academies of the nineteenth century, it was austere and practical, more like a prison than a place to broaden the mind and uplift the spirit. This austerity seemed to reflect the change of mood among its revolutionary squatters. There was a general air of sternness, of sleepless nights and feverish improvisation inside the Smolny. John Reed said that it 'hummed like a gigantic hive'. The outer gates were guarded by surly armed guards, who carefully checked the passes of everyone who entered (Trotsky himself was once refused entry when he could not find his pass). The endless vaulted corridors, dimly lit by electric lamps, were lined with resting soldiers and bundles of newspapers. There was a constant rush of people and the sound of their heavy boots on the stone floors echoed thunderously. The air was thick with cigarette smoke; the floors were covered with rubbish; and everywhere there was the smell of urine. Futile signs were hung up on the walls: 'Comrades, for the sake of your health, preserve cleanliness!' But no one took any notice. The barrack-like classrooms were filled by the offices of the various revolutionary organizations. On their doors, which constantly opened and shut, were still the old enamel plaques naming the classrooms; but over these hung crude paper signs to inform the passer-by of their new occupants: the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet; the Bureau of the Factory Committees; or the caucus of some political party. The centre of life at the Smolny was the ornate chandeliered ballroom, where the uproarious sessions of the Soviet were held; above the dais, where the executive sat, was a blank space on the wall, from which the Tsar's portrait had been removed. Downstairs, in the girls' former refectory, there was always a huge crowd of hungry workers and soldiers; many came to the Smolny for no other reason than to eat. They wolfed down their food, slurped hot tea from tins, and shouted obscenities which the young gentlewomen of the Smolny school could not even have imagined.1

With the Bolshevik Central Committee entrenched in Room 36, the Smolny became a physical challenge to the existence of the Provisional Government. The crucial meeting of 10 October had placed an armed uprising on the Bolsheviks' agenda. But they had not set a date. As yet, most of the Bolshevik leaders were still opposed to Lenin's demand for an immediate insurrection, while some put it off to the distant future. 'The resolution of 10 October is one of the best resolutions the Central Committee has ever passed,' declared Mikhail Kalinin, 'but when this uprising will take place is uncertain — perhaps in a year.' The ambivalent mood of the streets was the main cause for concern. Everyone sensed a general fatigue and discontent with the Kerensbchina. The war had gone on for far too long, people were fed up queuing half the night for bread, and there was a widespread feeling in the factories and the barracks that the status quo could no longer be endured. But would the Petrograd workers and soldiers 'come out' for an uprising? Many remembered the July Days, the loss of workers' jobs and repressions which followed, and were reluctant to risk another defeat. The Bolshevik Military Organization, which had its pulse on the mood of the capital's slums, repeatedly warned that while the workers and soldiers were thoroughly disgruntled and sympathized with their slogans, they were not yet ready to come out on the party's call, though they might take to the streets on the call of the Soviet if it was in danger.

Unwilling to wait for the All-Russian Soviet Congress, Lenin pinned his hopes on the Northern Regional Congress of Soviets, which met in Petrograd on II—13 October. As Latsis recalled, 'the plan was that it would declare itself the government, and this would be the start'. Lenin had close ties with the Bolshevik leaders of the Baltic region: it was they who had convened the Northern Regional Congress and arranged for it to be held in Petrograd rather than Helsingfors. Lenin had spent the summer in the Baltic region and had come to see it as a vital launching base for the revolution in Russia as well as the rest of Europe. He was especially impressed by the revolutionary zeal of the Latvians: they made up his personal bodyguard and, during the early days of Soviet rule, the bulk of the leading Chekists and Red Army elite (Latsis, Eiduck, Peters, Smilga). The Bolsheviks in Riga had effectively controlled their Soviet from as early as August, and Lenin now looked towards them to import the principle of Soviet power into Russia.* In a letter to Smilga, one of his closest associates during his summer of exile, Lenin had made it clear that he saw the Petrograd insurrection as a military invasion from the Baltic region. 'It seems to me', he had written on 17 September, 'that we can have completely at our disposal only the troops in Finland and the Baltic Fleet and that only they can play a serious military role.' The Northern Regional Congress was to provide the signal for this invasion. Smilga had organized it at Lenin's urging and had assumed the role of its chairman. The Bolshevik delegates arrived fully armed and clearly assuming that it would become the centre for an uprising. But Lenin was once again frustrated: the majority of the delegates passed Kamenev's cautious resolution to leave the creation of a Soviet government to the All-Russian Congress, due to convene on 20 October. Even in the Baltic, Lenin's own preferred vanguard region, it seems there was no mass support for an insurrection on the call of the party.2

* So much for the idea that Soviet power was always exported from Russia.


The same conclusion was suggested by the evidence presented to a meeting of the Central Committee on 16 October. The representatives of the Bolshevik Military Organization, the Petrograd Soviet, the trade unions and factory committees who attended this meeting all warned of the risks involved in staging an uprising before the Soviet Congress. Krylenko stated the view of the Military Organization that the soldiers' fighting spirit was falling: 'they would have to be stung by something, such as the break-up of the garrison, to come out for an uprising'. Volodarsky from the Petrograd Soviet confirmed the 'general impression . . . that no one is ready to rush out on to the streets but that everyone will come out if the Soviet calls'. Colossal unemployment and the fear of dismissal held the workers back, according to Shmidt of the trade unions. Shliapnikov added that even in the metalworkers' union, where the party's influence was dominant, 'a Bolshevik rising is not popular and rumours of this even produce panic'. Kamenev drew the logical conclusion: 'there is no evidence of any kind that we must begin the fight before the 20th [when the Soviet Congress was due to convene]'. But Lenin was insistent on the need for immediate preparations and saw no reason to hold back in the cautious reports on the mood of the Petrograd masses: in a military coup d'etat, which is how he conceived of the seizure of power, only a small force was needed, provided it was well armed and disciplined enough. Such was Lenin's towering influence over the rest of the party that he got his way. A counter-resolution by Zinoviev prohibiting the actual staging of an uprising before the Bolshevik delegates to the Soviet Congress had been consulted was defeated by 15 votes to 6, though the closeness of the vote, compared with the 19 to 2 majority in favour of Lenin's much vaguer call for an uprising in the immediate future, does suggest that several Bolshevik leaders had serious apprehensions about the wisdom of an insurrection before the Soviet Congress, albeit not enough to make an open stand against the great dictator.3 That, after all, would take some courage.


At the end of the meeting Kamenev declared that he could not accept its resolution, which in his view would lead the party to ruin, and submitted his resignation to the Central Committee in order to make his campaign public. He also demanded the convocation of the Party Conference, which Lenin had managed to get postponed: there was little doubt that it would oppose the call for an uprising before the Soviet Congress. On 18 October Kamenev aired his views in Gorky's newspaper, Novaia zhizn'. 'At the present', he wrote, 'the instigation of an armed uprising before and independent of the Soviet Congress would be an impermissible and even fatal step for the proletariat and the revolution.' This of course was to let the cat out of the bag: rumours of a Bolshevik coup had been spreading for weeks, and now the conspiracy had finally been exposed. Trotsky was forced to deny the rumours in the Petrograd Soviet, but for once his performance was less than convincing. Lenin was furious and, in a sign of the sort of purges to come, denounced Kamenev and Zinoviev in the Bolshevik press. 'Strike-breaking', 'betrayal', 'blacklegs', 'slanderous lies' and 'crime' — such terms were littered throughout the angry letters he sent on 18 and 19 October. 'Mr Zinoviev and Mr Kamenev' (this was the ultimate insult — they were now no longer even 'comrades') should be 'expelled from the party'.Such were the actions of a tyrant.

By publishing these letters, Lenin was taking the campaign for an uprising into the public domain. He had always based his argument for a preemptive seizure of power (before the Soviet Congress) on the danger — which he either overestimated or (more likely) invented — that the Provisional Government might not allow the Congress to convene. All the local party reports made it clear that, while the Petrograd workers and soldiers would not come out on the call of the party alone, many would do so if the Soviet was threatened. This had been true since the Kornilov crisis, when the popular notion that a 'counterrevolution' still lurked in the shadows of Kerensky's regime had first taken root. If the Bolsheviks were to get their supporters on to the streets once again, they would have to convince them that the Soviet was in danger. Their opponents did this for them.

With the Bolshevik conspiracy public knowledge, the Soviet leaders resolved to delay the Soviet Congress until 25 October. They hoped that the extra five days would give them the chance to muster their supporters from the far-flung provinces. But it merely gave the Bolsheviks the extra time they needed to make the final preparations for their uprising. Moreover, it lent credibility to their charge that the Soviet leaders were planning to ditch the Soviet Congress altogether. It is certainly true that they had regrets about calling it in the first place: when they had done so, at the time of the Democratic Conference, the swing to the Bolsheviks had not yet been fully apparent; but as the Congress approached, they realized that defeat stared them in the face.


Perhaps the Soviet leaders would have been better advised to concentrate their efforts on demanding strong repressive measures to counter the Bolshevik threat. The truth was that, even with a majority at the Soviet Congress, their paper resolutions would not be enough to fend off the bayonets of the Bolsheviks. But the Mensheviks and SRs were precluded from taking such measures by their feelings of comradeship with the Bolshevik Party. They could not forget that only months before they had been fellow-fighters in the revolutionary underground (and could not see diat only months ahead they would become the victims of the Bolshevik Terror). They limited themselves to questions aimed at putting the Bolsheviks on the spot. They stamped their feet and demanded that the Bolsheviks declared their plans before the Soviet. 'I want a yes or no answer,' insisted Dan, as if the Bolsheviks were likely to give it.5

Kerensky's own conduct was equally short-sighted. During the final weeks of the Provisional Government his behaviour began to resemble that of the last Tsar: both men refused to recognize the revolutionary threat to their own authority. With Nicholas such complacency had stemmed from hopeless despair and fatalistic resignation; but with Kerensky it was rather the result of his own foolish optimism. Kerensky's nationwide popularity during the early days of the revolution had gone to his head. He had come to believe in his own 'providential calling' to lead 'the people' to freedom and, like the Tsar confined to his Winter Palace, was sufficiently removed from their real situation not to question this faith. Like Nicholas, he surrounded himself with devoted admirers who dared not speak their mind; and kept his cabinet weak by constant talk of reshuffles. He had no idea of — or no wish to know — the true extent of his own unpopularity.

No doubt he had not heard the joke circulating round the country during the final weeks of his regime: 'Q: What is the difference between Russia today and at the end of last year? A: Then we had Alexandra Fedorovna [the Empress], but now we have Alexander Fedorovich [Kerensky].' The isolation of the Prime Minister was almost complete. The people's hero of the spring had become their anti-hero by the autumn. There were widespread rumours of his 'moral corruption' (just as there had been of the Romanovs): of his fine living in the Winter Palace; of his love affair with Elena Biriukova, his wife's cousin, who lived with the Kerenskys in the palace; of his constant drunkenness; and of his addiction to morphine and cocaine. Friends and acquaintances would ring Kerensky's wife to express their deepest sympathy. 'I could not understand why they were being so solicitous,' she later recalled, 'but then it turned out that there was some story in the left-wing press that Kerensky had left his wife and had run off with some actress.' It was falsely rumoured that Kerensky was a Jew, which in the climate of anti-Semitism that ran throughout the revolutionary era was highly damaging to his popular image. Kerensky himself recalled that when he fled the Winter Palace, just before the Bolshevik seizure of power, he saw the following ironic graffiti written on a wall: 'Down with the Jew Kerensky, Long Live Trotsky!' It was also rumoured that Kerensky liked to dress in women's clothes. There was much that was rather feminine in Kerensky's physique and gestures (Gippius called him her 'girlish revolutionary'), and this made him appear weak to many of the workers, in particular, who contrasted him unfavourably with the muscular masculinity of the Bolsheviks. Later it was even rumoured that when Kerensky had fled the Winter Palace he had been dressed in the outfit of a nurse/1

It was not just on the streets that Kerensky lost his credibility. The Western Allies, who had always been his strongest supporters, also turned against him after the Kornilov crisis. The British Foreign Ministry was clearly taken in by the rumours about his private life. It was under the absurd impression that his secretary, David Soskice, was a German agent and a Bolshevik, and that Kerensky himself was about to conclude a separate peace with Germany. Nabokov, the Provisional Government's representative in London, thought that the British had decided to wash their hands of Kerensky, believing him to be on his way out', once Kornilov's reforms had been jettisoned.7

Even among the democratic intelligentsia, where he had once been hailed as a popular hero, Kerensky was now reviled. His oldest patron, the poetess and salon hostess Zinaida Gippius, wrote in her diary on 24 October: 'Nobody wants the Bolsheviks, but nobody is prepared to fight for Kerensky either.' This just about sums it up. Brusilov, who since his dismissal as Commander-in-Chief had become an advocate of the need to raise a civilian militia in order to fight the Bolsheviks, found that he could muster neither volunteers nor money to buy mercenaries. Everybody cursed the Bolsheviks but nobody was prepared to do anything about them. The bourgeoisie and the Rightist groups would have nothing more to do with the Provisional Government, and even welcomed its demise. Nobody wanted to defend it, least of all the monarchists. They preferred to let the Bolsheviks seize power, in the belief that they would not last long and would bring the country to such utter ruin that all the socialists would be discredited, whereupon the Rightists would impose their own dictatorship.8

Kerensky remained oblivious to his declining fortunes. He continued to trust in the support of 'the people' — was he not their hostage? — and refused to take any preventive measures against the Bolshevik threat. No attempt was made to seize control of the Smolny, or to arrest the Bolshevik leaders, or to reinforce the defence of the city, during the first half of October, when such measures stood at least some chance of success. He seemed to believe that any 3olshevik rising would be a repeat of the July Days fiasco. He even began to pray that the Bolsheviks would make a move, in the naive belief that this would give him the chance to deal with them once and for all. 'I would be prepared to offer prayers to produce this uprising,' he told Nabokov on 20 October. 'I have greater forces than necessary. They will be utterly crushed.'*9

Confident of victory, Kerensky declared war on the Bolsheviks. He announced his plans to transfer the bulk of the Petrograd garrison to the Northern Front, where the Germans were advancing towards the capital. As on the eve of the July crisis, he no doubt saw in the German threat an excellent excuse to rid the capital of its unruly soldiers; and he must have been counting on the idea that, as in July, the break-up of the garrison would give rise to a badly planned Bolshevik uprising. But this was, of course, a fatal miscalculation. It gave credibility to the Bolshevik charge that there was a 'counter-revolutionary plot' within government circles — a charge which they needed in order to rally support for an immediate uprising. The Bolsheviks claimed that Kerensky was planning to abandon the capital in order to close down the Soviet Congress and kill off the revolution. Such fears reached fever pitch when Rodzianko, the former Duma President, urged Kerensky to do just that in a speech that was widely reported in the press under the headline: 'To hell with Petrograd!'

This was the highly charged political atmosphere in which the Military Revolutionary Committee was able to supersede the authority of the Provisional Government inside the Petrograd garrison and become the leading organizational force of the Bolshevik insurrection. It all happened in a matter of days — and the secret of the MRC's success was in posing as an organ of Soviet defence. The MRC was formed in the middle of October, and held its first organizational meeting on the 20th. Like the Soviet Committee for Struggle Against the Counter-Revolution, which had arisen during the Kornilov crisis, it was conceived as an ad hoc body of revolutionary defence (as much against the Germans as against the 'counter-revolution'). Its Bureau, which met on the third floor of the Smolny, was made up of three Bolsheviks and two Left SRs, with P. E. Lazimir, a Left SR, as its nominal chairman. This served to give it the appearance of a Soviet organization, which was important because the soldiers would only come out on the call of the Soviet. But in fact the MRC was a Bolshevik organization. Its real leaders were Trotsky, Antonov-Ovseenko, and the Baltic sailor Dybenko, the huge black-bearded lover of Kollontai (who was old enough to be his mother). The role of the Left SRs was what Trotsky called 'camouflage' to conceal the Bolshevik coup plans. The fact that the Left SRs allowed themselves to be used in this way says all that needs to be said about their political naivety. Their strategic decisions were guided by a formless revolutionary spirit characteristic of students. They were lambs to the Bolshevik wolf. When the MRC resolved to launch the seizure of power, in the small hours of 25 October, the two Left SRs were not even there.

* When Kerensky fled the capital on 25 October he left a small fortune in his bank account: the modest size of his last withdrawal, on 24 October, suggests that even at this final hour he was not expecting to be overthrown. His account book is in GARF, f. 1807, op. I, d. 452.


The threat of transfer to the Front immediately sparked a general mutiny in the Petrograd garrison. The bulk of the soldiers refused to obey the orders of the General Staff and switched their allegiance to the MRC, which sent out commissars to replace the unit commanders. Meetings of soldiers expressed their readiness to 'come out' against the Provisional Government if called to do so by the Petrograd Soviet. Even the once loyal Cossack regiments went along with the mutiny, or remained neutral. On 21 October the MRC proclaimed itself the ruling authority of the garrison: it was the first act of the insurrection. The General Staff made a last desperate effort to salvage some of its authority by reaching a compromise with the MRC. But it was too late. The garrison units were already under the effective control of the commissars. On 23 October the MRC extended its power to the Peter and Paul Fortress, whose cannon overlooked the Winter Palace. The Provisional Government had lost effective military control of the capital a full two days before the armed uprising began. This was the essential fact of the whole insurrection: without it one cannot explain the ease of the Bolshevik victory. By 25 October the most important task of any successful revolution — the capture of the garrison in the capital — had already been completed; the Provisional Government was defenceless; and it only remained for the Bolsheviks to walk into the Winter Palace and arrest the ministers.

The remarkable thing about the Bolshevik insurrection is that hardly any of the Bolshevik leaders had wanted it to happen until a few hours before it began. Until late in the evening of 24 October the majority of the Central Committee and the MRC had not envisaged the overthrow of the Provisional Government before the opening of the Soviet Congress the next day. Trotsky, who in Lenin's absence had effectively assumed the leadership of the party, repeatedly stressed the need for discipline and patience. On the morning of the 24th Kerensky had ordered the closure of two Bolshevik newspapers. Trotsky refused to be drawn by this 'provocation': the MRC should be placed on alert; the city's strategic installations should be seized as a defensive measure against any further 'counter-revolutionary' threats; but, as he insisted at a meeting of the Bolshevik Congress delegates in the afternoon, 'it would be a mistake to use even one of the armoured cars which now defend the Winter Palace to arrest the government. . . This is defence, comrades. This is defence.' Later that evening, in the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky declared — and had good reason to believe — that 'an armed conflict today or tomorrow, on the eve of the Soviet Congress, is not in our plans'.10

There were obvious reasons not to force events at this final hour. The Bolsheviks needed the sanction of the Soviet Congress to give legitimacy to their seizure of power: without it they could certainly not rely on the support of the soldiers and workers, and might even run the risk of having to fight against them. The Soviet delegates were already arriving for the opening of the Congress on the 25th, and from their composition it seemed highly likely that there would be a solid majority in favour of Soviet power. As for the Provisional Government — well, it was looking increasingly provisional, and would no doubt fall at the slightest prod. In the evening of the 24th the Preparliament had effectively passed a motion of no confidence in it. Even Dan and Gots, previously among the most obstinate advocates of the coalition, abandoned Kerensky and called for the establishment of a democratic government committed to peace and radical reforms. They wanted to publicize this as a historic proclamation plastered throughout the capital that same night, in the hope that it might appease the potential insurgents and strengthen the campaign for a peaceful resolution of the power question through the formation of a socialist coalition. Perhaps it was already too late for this: it looked like trying to fend off the Bolshevik guns with paper decrees. Yet, even in these final hours, there was still some basis for hope that agreement might be reached. In the evening of the 24th Kamenev was still rushing around the Smolny trying to win support for a resolution calling on the Congress to form a socialist government of all the Soviet parties; and the SRs and Mensheviks, whose congress delegates met late into the night, were at last coming round to support the plan.

Meanwhile, however, the Bolshevik insurrection was already gaining momentum. Despite Trotsky's call for discipline, it was hard to stop the defensive measures of the MRC from spilling into a general offensive. As darkness fell, armed crowds of Bolshevik workers and soldiers spilled into the centre of the city. The government blockades on the bridges, which controlled the routes from the outlying slums, were taken over by Red Guards. They set up road blocks and patrolled the streets in armoured cars, while late-night theatre-goers hurried home. By the early hours of the morning, Bolshevik forces had seized control of the railway stations, the post and telegraph, the state bank, the telephone exchange and the electricity station. The Red Guards had taken over the local police stations and had begun to assume the functions of the police themselves. Overall, the insurgents had the control of almost all the city with the exception of the central zone around the Winter Palace and St Isaac's Square. Bunkered inside the Winter Palace, Kerensky's ministers did not even have control over their own lights or telephones. One of the Bolshevik engineers engaged in the occupation of the Nikolaevsky Station recalled standing guard by the equestrian statue of Alexander III:

It was a freezing night. One could feel the north wind going through one's Bolsheviks needed the sanction of the Soviet Congress to give legitimacy to their seizure of power: without it they could certainly not rely on the support of the soldiers and workers, and might even run the risk of having to fight against them. The Soviet delegates were already arriving for the opening of the Congress on the 25th, and from their composition it seemed highly likely that there would be a solid majority in favour of Soviet power. As for the Provisional Government — well, it was looking increasingly provisional, and would no doubt fall at the slightest prod. In the evening of the 24th the Preparliament had effectively passed a motion of no confidence in it. Even Dan and Gots, previously among the most obstinate advocates of the coalition, abandoned Kerensky and called for the establishment of a democratic government committed to peace and radical reforms. They wanted to publicize this as a historic proclamation plastered throughout the capital that same night, in the hope that it might appease the potential insurgents and strengthen the campaign for a peaceful resolution of the power question through the formation of a socialist coalition. Perhaps it was already too late for this: it looked like trying to fend off the Bolshevik guns with paper decrees. Yet, even in these final hours, there was still some basis for hope that agreement might be reached. In the evening of the 24th Kamenev was still rushing around the Smolny trying to win support for a resolution calling on the Congress to form a socialist government of all the Soviet parties; and the SRs and Mensheviks, whose congress delegates met late into the night, were at last coming round to support the plan.

Meanwhile, however, the Bolshevik insurrection was already gaining momentum. Despite Trotsky's call for discipline, it was hard to stop the defensive measures of the MRC from spilling into a general offensive. As darkness fell, armed crowds of Bolshevik workers and soldiers spilled into the centre of the city. The government blockades on the bridges, which controlled the routes from the outlying slums, were taken over by Red Guards. They set up road blocks and patrolled the streets in armoured cars, while late-night theatre-goers hurried home. By the early hours of the morning, Bolshevik forces had seized control of the railway stations, the post and telegraph, the state bank, the telephone exchange and the electricity station. The Red Guards had taken over the local police stations and had begun to assume the functions of the police themselves. Overall, the insurgents had the control of almost all the city with the exception of the central zone around the Winter Palace and St Isaac's Square. Bunkered inside the Winter Palace, Kerensky's ministers did not even have control over their own lights or telephones. One of the Bolshevik engineers engaged in the occupation of the Nikolaevsky Station recalled standing guard by the equestrian statue of Alexander III:

It was a freezing night. One could feel the north wind going through one's bones. On the streets adjacent to the Nikolaevsky Station groups of engineers huddled, shivering from the cold, and peered vigilantly into the shadowy night. The moonlight created a fantastic scene. The hulks of the houses looked like medieval castles, and giant shadows followed the engineers. At this sight the next-to-last Emperor appeared to rein in his horse in horror.11


IMAGES OF 1917

52 The First Provisional Government in the Marinsky Palace. Prince Lvov is seated in the centre, Miliukov is second from the right, while Kerensky is standing behind him. Note that the tsarist portraits (of Alexander II and Alexander III) have not been removed.

53 A rare moment of national unity: the burial of the victims of the February Revolution on the Mars Field in Petrograd, 23 March 1917.


54 A meeting of the Soviet of Soldiers' Deputies in the Catherine Hall of the Tauride Palace.


55 Waiters and waitresses of Petrograd on strike. The main banner reads: 'We insist on respect for waiters as human beings.' The three other banners call for an end to the degrading practice of tipping service staff. This stress on respect for workers as citizens was a prominent feature of many strikes. Note in this context that the strikers are well dressed - they could be mistaken for bourgeois citizens - since this was a demonstration of their dignity.

56 The All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies in the People's House in Petrograd, 4 May. A soldiers' delegation (standing in the hall) greets the deputies (on the balconies). In the second balcony on the left are (from left to right) the four veteran SR leaders: Viktor Chernov, Vera Figner, Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya and N. D. Avksentiev.


57 Fedor Linde leads the Finland Regiment to the Marinsky Palace on 20 April to protest against the continuation of the war for imperial ends.


58 Kerensky cuts a Bonapartist figure during a speech in mid-May to the soldiers of the Front.

59 Metropolitan Nikon blesses the Women's Battalion of Death on Red Square in Moscow before their departure for the Front in June. One of the women was too fat for standard-issue trousers and had to go to battle in a skirt.


60 General Kornilov is greeted as a hero by the right-wing members of the Officers' Union on his arrival in Moscow for the State Conference on 12 August.


61 Members of the Women's Battalion of Death await the final assault on the Winter Palaee, 25 Oetober 1917. When the Aurora fired its first salvo the women became hysterical and had to be confined in a basement room.

62 More of Kerensky's last defenders, barricaded inside the Winter Palace, await the assault of the Bolshevik forces on 25 October.


63 The Smolny Institute, seat of the Soviet and command centre of the Bolshevik Party, in early October.

64 The Red Guard of the Vulkan Factory in Petrograd. Note the ties and suits of many of the guards.


These early successes strengthened Lenin's appeal for the immediate seizure of power. The Bolshevik leaders did not want a repeat of the July Days, when their own initial hesitation in supporting the initiative of the streets had resulted in fiasco. As news reached them of the Bolshevik gains, so pressure mounted to take control of the situation and start the insurrection. Lenin's intervention was decisive. Confined to Fofanova's flat, he had become increasingly frustrated as he watched the day's events unfold. At 6 p.m. he scribbled a desperate appeal to the Petrograd party organizations, urging them to launch an insurrection in the next few hours, and ordered Fofanova to deliver it to the Smolny. The Soviet Congress was due to open the following afternoon, and unless the Bolsheviks had already seized power by then, his whole political strategy would be doomed. By 10 p.m. Lenin could hold back no longer. He donned his wig and a worker's cap, wrapped a bandage around his head, and set off for the Smolny, accompanied by the Finnish Bolshevik, Eino Rakhia. Riding through the Vyborg district in an empty streetcar, Lenin overwhelmed the poor conductress with questions on the latest situation and, discovering that she was a leftist, bullied her with advice on revolutionary action. From the Finland Station the two men continued their journey on foot. Near the Tauride Palace a government patrol stopped them, but, according to Rakhia, mistook Lenin, who was dressed in his worst clothes, for a harmless drunk and let them proceed.12 One can only wonder how different history would have been if Lenin had been arrested.

Shortly before midnight they finally reached the Smolny. The building was ablaze with lights, like an ocean liner in the dark night sea. Trucks and armoured cars rushed to and fro laden down with Bolshevik troops and guns. Machine-guns had been set up outside the gates, where the Red Guards huddled around a bonfire checking the passes of those wanting to enter the military headquarters of the insurrection. Lenin had arrived without a pass and, in his disguise, was not recognized by the Red Guards; he only succeeded in gaining entry by squeezing through them amidst a crowd. He went at once to Room 36, where the Bolshevik caucus met, and harangued his comrades on the need to start the seizure of power. A meeting of the Central Committee was hastily convened and, although no protocol of it was recorded, the testimonies of those who were there are all agreed that Lenin had a decisive effect in changing the dominant mood from one of defence to one of offence. The Central Committee at last gave the order for the insurrection to begin. A map of the city was brought out and the Bolshevik leaders pored over it, drawing up the main lines of attack and assigning military tasks.

During a break in their deliberations Lenin suggested drawing up a list of the Bolshevik government to be presented to the Soviet Congress the next day. The question arose as to what to call the new government and its members. The term 'Provisional Government' was thought to sound outmoded, whilst calling themselves 'ministers' seemed far too bureaucratic and respectable. The Bolsheviks, after all, liked to see themselves as a fighting organization: they dressed in macho black leather jackets and military boots, whereas most of the other political parties wore ministerial suits.* It was Trotsky who came forward with the idea of calling the ministers 'people's commissars' in emulation of the Jacobins. Everyone liked the suggestion. 'Yes, that's very good,' said Lenin, 'it smells of revolution. And we can call the government itself the "Council of People's Commissars".' Nominations were taken for the various cabinet posts, although with Kerensky not yet overthrown the exercise seemed rather premature and was carried out in a light-hearted manner. Lenin stretched himself out on the floor, relaxed and triumphant. He made several jokes at Kamenev's expense, who had warned that the party could not hold on to power for more than a fortnight. 'Never mind,' Lenin quipped, 'when, in two years' time, we are still in power, then you will be saying that we cannot survive longer than two years.'13

*** Few historical events have been more profoundly distorted by myth than those of 25 October 1917. The popular image of the Bolshevik insurrection, as a bloody struggle by the tens of thousands with several thousand fallen heroes, owes more to October — Eisenstein's brilliant but largely fictional propaganda film to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the event — than to historical fact. The Great October Socialist Revolution, as it came to be called in Soviet mythology, was in reality such a small-scale event, being in effect no more than a military coup, that it passed unnoticed by the vast majority of the inhabitants of Petrograd. Theatres, restaurants and tram cars functioned much as normal while the Bolsheviks came to power. The whole insurrection could have been completed in six hours, had it not been for the ludicrous incompetence of the insurgents themselves, which made it take an extra fifteen. The legendary 'storming' of the Winter Palace, where Kerensky's cabinet held its final session, was more like a routine house arrest, since most of the forces defending the palace had already left for home, hungry and dejected, before the assault began. The only real damage to the imperial residence in the whole affair was a chipped cornice and a shattered window on the third floor.

* It was only under Stalin, when the Bolsheviks began to call themselves 'Ministers', that they reverted back to suits.


The Bolshevik plan was simple: the garrison soldiers, the Red Guards and the Kronstadt sailors were to capture the Marinsky Palace and disperse the Preparliament; demand the surrender of the Provisional Government and, if it refused, seize control of the Winter Palace on a signal from the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Baltic cruiser Aurora. The MRC expected to complete the operations by noon — in time for Lenin to present the seizure of power as a fait accompli to the Soviet Congress. At 10 a.m., in anticipation of a speedy victory, the Bolshevik leader was already putting the final touches to his manifesto, 'To the Citizens of Russia!', announcing the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the transfer of power to the MRC.14

The first part of the plan went smoothly enough: shortly before noon a group of Bolshevik soldiers and sailors burst into the Marinsky Palace and ordered the deputies to disperse. But after that elementary technical failures forced the MRC to postpone the operations around the Winter Palace until 3 p.m., then 6 p.m., whereafter it ceased to bother with any set deadlines at all. The first major hold-up was the late arrival of the Baltic sailors, without whom the MRC would not go ahead. Then there was another, even more frustrating, problem. The assault on the Winter Palace was due to begin with the heavy field-guns of the Peter and Paul Fortress, but at the final moment these were discovered to be rusty museum pieces which could not be fired. Soldiers were hastily sent out to drag alternative cannons up to the fortress walls, but when these arrived it turned out that there were no suitable shells for them. Even more surreal was the panic created by the seemingly simple task of raising a red lantern to the top of the fortress's flagpole to signal the start of the assault on the palace. When the moment for action arrived, no red lantern could be found. The Bolshevik Commissar of the Fortress, Blagonravov, went out in search of a suitable lamp but got himself lost in the dark and fell into a muddy bog. When he finally returned, the lamp he had brought could not be fixed to the flagpole and was never seen by those who took part in the assault. In any case, it wasn't red.15

From Lenin's point of view all these delays were infuriating. It was vital for him to have the seizure of power completed before the opening of the Soviet Congress and, although this too had been delayed, time was rapidly running out. At around 3 p.m. he had told a packed session of the Petrograd Soviet that the Provisional Government had already been overthrown. It was of course a lie — the Ministers were still barricaded inside the Winter Palace — but that was a minor detail: the fact of the seizure of power was to be so important to his political strategy over the next few hours that he was even prepared to invent it. As afternoon turned into evening, he screamed at the MRC commanders to seize the Winter Palace without delay. Podvoisky recalls him pacing around in a small room in the Smolny 'like a lion in a cage. He needed the Winter Palace at any cost... he was ready to shoot us.'16

In fact the Bolshevik forces which had gathered in the centre of the city by this stage could have walked quite freely into the Winter Palace, since its defence was almost non-existent. With the mutiny of the Petrograd garrison, Kerensky had tried to summon loyal troops from the Northern Front. His order had been dispatched on the night of the 24th with the forged signature of the Soviet leaders, since Kerensky feared the soldiers would not come on the authority of the Provisional Government. By the following morning there was still no sign of the troops and he resolved to go off in search of them. With the railways in Bolshevik hands, he was forced to travel by car; but such was the utter helplessness of the Provisional Government that it did not even have a taxi at its disposal. Military officials were sent out to find a car. They seized a Renault from outside the American Embassy (which later launched a diplomatic protest), while a second car was found at the War Ministry, although it had no fuel and more men had to be sent out to 'borrow' some from the English Hospital. At around 11 a.m. the two cars sped out of the Winter Palace and headed out of the city. Kerensky was seated in the second car, flying the Stars and Stripes, which no doubt helped him past the MRC pickets already beginning to form around the Palace Square.17

Kerensky's departure threw the rest of the ministers into a panic (for a while they did not even know where he was). At midday they met in the Malachite Hall and prepared to organize the defence of the palace. But it was a hopeless task. They were totally inexperienced in military operations and spent the best part of the next four hours in a futile and aimless discussion of possible candidates for the post of 'Dictator' (dictator of what?) before settling on the Kadet doctor, and Minister of Welfare, Nikolai Kishkin. The engineer Palchinsky, who was placed in charge of defending the palace, could not even find a plan of the building, or anyone expert in its topography, with the result that one of the side-doors was left unguarded and Bolshevik spies were able to enter it freely. There were already some loyalist forces inside the palace, and others outside who spent the afternoon building barricades out of piles of logs. Kerensky had kept a small number of troops on the ground floor since moving into the palace, and these were now joined by two companies of Cossacks, some young cadets from the military schools and 200 women from the Shock Battalion of Death, in all some 3,000 soldiers. John Reed, one of several foreign journalists to slip past their guard during the afternoon, described the scene:

At the end of the corridor was a large, ornate room with gilded cornices and enormous crystal lustres . . . On both sides of the parqueted floor lay rows of dirty mattresses and blankets, upon which occasional soldiers were stretched out; everywhere was a litter of cigarette butts, bits of bread, cloth, and empty bottles with expensive French labels. More and more soldiers ... moved about in a stale atmosphere of tobacco-smoke and unwashed humanity. One had a bottle of white Burgundy, evidently filched from the cellars of the Palace . . . The place was a huge barrack.18                           

The fighting spirit of the soldiers defending the Winter Palace was extremely weak, however, and the longer they waited for the Bolsheviks to attack the more frightened they became. They were constantly reminded by the propaganda of the enemy that they were vastly outnumbered, and this made it difficult to keep up their morale. Alexander Sinegub, one of the officers in charge, recalls the soldiers smoking, getting drunk and cursing their hopeless situation while the ministers harangued them on the need to maintain discipline. The Cossacks were particularly disgruntled by the idea of having to fight alongside 'women with guns'. There was no real ammunition store inside the palace, while the food supply was not enough to feed all the soldiers even for dinner. As the evening wore on, more and more of these hungry soldiers became demoralized and abandoned the palace: the call of their stomachs was stronger than the call of duty. By the early evening, all but 300 of the troops had laid down their arms and slipped away to the restaurants in the city.19

During these final hours of waiting for the inevitable the ministers made a number of futile appeals to the people for help. Although all their telephone lines had been cut, they still had a secret line to the military telegraph office in the attic of the War Ministry building, where, unbeknown to the Bolsheviks, who had occupied the rest of the building, a young officer sat sending out the government's final appeals to various parts of the country (later, when he heard the palace had fallen, he put on his coat and hat and walked calmly out of the building). John Reed, who saw the green baize cabinet table shortly after the ministers' arrest, found it covered in dozens of roughly scribbled drafts, most of them scratched out as their futility became evident. No one, it seems, was prepared to rally to the defence of the Provisional Government. The one attempt to do so, by the deputies of the Petrograd city Duma, was a piece of surreal theatre that ended in farce. Responding to the ministers' appeal for support, the deputies declared their readiness to 'stand in front of the Bolshevik cannon', and marched off in columns of four towards the Winter Palace singing the Marseillaise. The white-bearded figure of Schreider, the Mayor of Petrograd, led this army of salvation, along with Prokopovich, the Minister of Supplies, who carried an umbrella to shelter himself from the rain which was now beginning to fall and a lantern to light up the way. The 300 deputies, dressed in their frock-coats, officers' tunics and dresses, each proudly bore a package of bread and salami for the hungry defenders of the Winter Palace. They were a walking symbol of the decent but doomed old liberal Russia that was about to disappear. The deputies had advanced less than a block from the Duma building when they were halted by a patrol of Bolshevik sailors near the Kazan Square. Schreider bared his breast to their guns and pronounced himself ready to die, if they did not let them pass. But the sailors, no doubt seeing the comical aspect of this impotent protest, threatened to 'spank' them if they did not go home. Prokopovich then climbed on to a box and, waving his umbrella in the air, made a speech: 'Comrades and citizens! Force is being used against us! We cannot have our innocent blood upon the hands of these ignorant men! It is beneath our dignity to be shot down here in the streets . .. Let us return to the Duma and discuss the best means of saving the country and the revolution!' Whereupon the outraged deputies about-turned and marched back up the Nevsky, all the time maintaining a dignified silence in defeat.20

Meanwhile, at 6.50 p.m., the MRC delivered its ultimatum to the Winter Palace demanding the surrender of the Provisional Government. The ministers, who were at the time sitting down to a supper of borscht, steamed fish and artichokes, all felt a solemn obligation to be brave and resist for as long as they could, although some were concerned that the palace might be destroyed if the cruiser Aurora, anchored alongside the English Embankment,* opened fire at it as had been threatened. They reasoned that the Bolsheviks would be widely condemned if they were made to overthrow them by force; so the ultimatum was refused. For a long time nothing happened — the Bolsheviks were still messing around with faulty field-guns and lanterns in the Peter and Paul Fortress — but at 9.40 p.m. the signal was finally given and one blank round was fired by the Aurora. The huge sound of the blast, much louder than a live shot, caused the frightened ministers to drop at once to the floor. The women from the Battalion of Death became hysterical and had to be taken away to a room at the back of the palace, while most of the remaining cadets abandoned their posts. After a short break to allow those who wished to do so to leave the palace, Blagonravov gave the order for the real firing to begin from the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Aurora and the Palace Square. Most of the shells from the fortress landed harmlessly in the Neva. George Buchanan, the British Ambassador, who inspected the palace the following day, found only three shrapnel marks on the river side of the building, although 'on the town side the walls were riddled with thousands of bullets from machine guns'.21

* The exact 'historic spot' where the Aurora was anchored happened to be by a pretty little chapel next to the Nikolaevsky Bridge. Several years later it was decided that this Christian link with the starting place of the Great October Socialist Revolution should be removed — and so the Bolsheviks turned the chapel into a public lavatory!


Just as the bombardment was getting under way, at 10.40 p.m., the Soviet Congress finally opened. The great hall of the Smolny was packed; the delegates stood in the aisles and perched on window-sills. The air was thick with blue tobacco smoke, despite repeated calls from the tribune for 'the comrades' not to smoke. The majority of the delegates were workers and soldiers in their tunics and greatcoats; their unwashed and dirty look contrasted sharply with the clean suits of the old executive members, the Mensheviks and SRs, seated on the platform for the final time. Sukhanov remarked that the 'grey features of the Bolshevik provinces' had a clear preponderance among the Congress delegates. He was shocked by their 'dark', 'morose' and 'primitive' appearance, and thought it reflected a 'crude and ignorant people whose devotion to the revolution was spite and despair, while their "Socialism" was hunger and an unendurable longing for rest'. This of course was a Menshevik speaking, but, even if we ignore his value-laden terms, there is no doubt that the mass of the delegates were indeed less cultured than the urbanized, skilled and educated types who had hitherto made up the majority of the Soviet movement.

The Bolsheviks did not have an absolute majority, as Sukhanov had thought, though with the support of the Left SRs they could push through virtually any motion they liked. Although precise numbers are difficult to determine, the Credentials Committee of the Congress reported that 300 of the 670 delegates were Bolsheviks, 193 SRs (of whom more than half were Left SRs), while 82 were Mensheviks (of whom 14 were Internationalists). Because of the lax regulations for the selection of delegates and their own superior party organization, the Bolsheviks had managed to secure rather more than their fair share of seats. The northern industrial Soviets, where the influence of the Bolsheviks was dominant both in the towns and the semi-industrial villages, sent more representatives than was warranted by their size; whereas those of the Volga and the agricultural south, where the SRs were dominant, sent fewer and in some cases even boycotted the Congress altogether. There was a similar imbalance among the delegates of the armed services, with the Bolshevized north far better represented than the non-Bolshevized south. The Latvians, the most Bolshevized troops of all, made up more than 10 per cent of the delegates.22

In accordance with these voting strengths, the old Soviet leaders vacated their seats on the platform; they were replaced by 14 Bolsheviks and 7 Left SRs. The Mensheviks declined to take up the 4 seats allocated to them.

The mandates of the delegates showed an overwhelming majority in favour of a Soviet government. It was up to the Congress to decide how this should be formed. Martov proposed the formation of a united democratic government based upon all the parties in the Soviet: this, he said, was the only way to avert a civil war. The proposal was met with torrents of applause. Even Lunacharsky was forced to admit that the Bolsheviks had nothing against it — they could not abandon the slogan of Soviet Power — and the proposal was immediately passed by a unanimous vote. But just as it looked as if a socialist coalition was at last about to be formed, a series of Mensheviks and SRs bitterly denounced the violent assault on the Provisional Government. They declared that their parties, or at least the right-wing sections of them, would have nothing to do with this 'criminal venture', which was bound to throw the country into civil war, and walked out of the Congress hall in protest, while the Bolshevik delegates stamped their feet, whistled and hurled abuse at them.23

Lenin's planned provocation — the pre-emptive seizure of power — had worked. By walking out of the Congress, the Mensheviks and SRs undermined all hopes of reaching a compromise with the Bolshevik moderates and of forming a coalition government of all the Soviet parties. The path was now clear for the Bolshevik dictatorship, based on the Soviet, which Lenin had no doubt intended all along. In the charged political atmosphere of the time, it is easy to see why the Mensheviks and SRs acted as they did. But it is equally difficult not to draw the conclusion that, by their actions, they merely played into Lenin's hands and thus committed political suicide. Writing in 1921, Sukhanov admitted as much:

We completely untied the Bolsheviks' hands, making them masters of the whole situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the Revolution. A struggle at the Congress for a united democratic front might have had some success . . . But by leaving the Congress, we ourselves gave the Bolsheviks a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the Revolution. By our own irrational decision, we ensured the victory of Lenin's whole 'line'.24

The immediate effect of their walk-out was to split the opposition forces, leaving Martov and the other left-wing advocates of a coalition isolated. Martov made one more desperate appeal for an all-democratic government. But the mood in the hall was changing. As the mass of the delegates saw it, the Mensheviks and SRs had proved themselves to be 'counter-revolutionaries' by walking out of the Congress; and they were now ready to follow the lead of the Bolsheviks in opposing the whole idea of a compromise with them. Trotsky seized the initiative and, in one of the most often-quoted speeches of the twentieth century, denounced Martov's resolution for a coalition:

The masses of the people followed our banner and our insurrection was victorious. And now we are told: Renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal. .. No one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made between two equal sides .. . But here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we say: You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to go — into the dustbin of history!

In a moment of rage, which he must have agonized over for the rest of his life, Martov shouted, 'Then we'll leave!' and walked in silence towards the exit without looking back. As he did so, a Bolshevik dressed in a black shirt, tied by a leather belt, stepped out into the aisle and said to Martov: And we had thought that Martov at least would remain with us.' Visibly shaken by these words, Lenin's old comrade replied: 'One day you will understand the crime in which you are taking part.' And with that he walked out — and into the political wilderness.25

It was past two o'clock in the morning and it only remained for Trotsky, who was now clearly doing the work of Lenin, to propose a resolution condemning the 'treacherous' attempts of the Mensheviks and SRs to undermine Soviet power. In effect, this would be to give a Soviet stamp of approval to a Bolshevik dictatorship. The mass of the delegates, who were probably too ignorant to comprehend the political import of what they were doing, raised their hands in support (weren't they in favour of Soviet power?). But the Left SR leaders, who should have known better, were equally fooled; and they too raised their hands in the naive conviction, as their leader, Boris Kamkov, later explained, that 'our place was with the revolution' and that, by going along with the Bolshevik adventure, they might be able to tame it.26

Meanwhile, the final assault on the Winter Palace was nearing completion. The loyalist forces had virtually all abandoned the defence of the palace and Bolshevik troops could enter it at will. The ministers, who were now stretched out on sofas, or slouched in chairs, awaiting the end, could hear the sound of running soldiers, shouts and gun shots from the floor below. Finally, some time after 2 a.m., these sounds grew louder: the Bolshevik attackers were climbing the stairs and approaching the door. It was clear that the moment for surrender had arrived. The ministers jumped up and — for some strange reason — grabbed hold of their overcoats, as the door was suddenly flung open and in stepped the small, unassuming figure of Antonov-Ovseenko. 'You are all under arrest,' the Bolshevik leader announced. A register of the ministers was taken. The realization that Kerensky was not present angered the attackers, one of whom shouted: 'Bayonet all the sons of bitches!' But otherwise discipline was maintained. The ministers were led away on foot (no cars were available) to the Peter and Paul Fortress, where they were locked up in dismal conditions for a number of weeks. The Bolshevik escorts had to defend them on the way from several attempts to lynch them on the streets, and it must have been with some relief that the ministers finally reached the safety of their prison. Perhaps some of them were also secretly relieved to be no longer burdened with the near-impossible task of trying to govern Russia. As the door of his cell banged shut, Alexei Nikitin, the deposed Minister of the Interior, found in his pocket a half-forgotten telegram from the Ukrainian Rada. 'I received this yesterday,' he told Antonov-Ovseenko, as he handed him the crumpled piece of paper, 'now it's your problem.'27

It fell to Kamenev, ironically enough, to announce the arrest of the ministers to the Soviet Congress. The Bolsheviks cheered as their names were read out. But a large peasant, his face convulsed with rage, got up on behalf of the SRs to denounce the arrest of the socialist ministers. 'Do you know that four comrades, who risked their lives and their freedom fighting against the tyranny of the Tsar, have been flung into the Peter and Paul prison — the historical tomb of Liberty?' There was pandemonium as people shouted out, while Trotsky, gesturing for silence, answered by denouncing them as false 'comrades' and claimed there was no reason 'to handle them with gloves'. After the July Days 'they didn't use much ceremony with us!' Kamenev then announced that the Cyclist Battalion had come over to the 'side of the revolution'. There were reports of more vital troops joining from the Northern Front. And then Lunacharsky read out Lenin's Manifesto 'To All Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants', in which 'Soviet Power' was proclaimed, and its promises on land, bread and peace were announced. The reading of this historic proclamation, which was constantly interrupted by the thunderous cheers of the delegates, played an enormous symbolic role. It provided the illusion that the insurrection was the culmination of a revolution by 'the masses'. When it had been passed, shortly after 5 a.m. on the 26th, the weary but elated delegates emerged from the Tauride Palace. 'The night was yet heavy and chill,' wrote John Reed. 'There was only a faint unearthly pallor stealing over the silent streets, dimming the watch-fires, the shadow of a terrible dawn rising over Russia.'28

* * * How many people took part in the insurrection? Historians have always been sharply divided on this question, with those on the Left depicting October as a popular revolution driven from below, and those on the Right depicting it as a coup d'etat without any mass support. At the root of the question is the nature — and thus the 'legitimacy' — of the Soviet system. And in this sense it is one of the fundamental questions of the twentieth century.

The number of active participants in the insurrection was not very large — although of course it must be borne in mind that large numbers were not needed for the task, given the almost complete absence of any military forces in the capital prepared to defend the Provisional Government. Trotsky himself claimed that 25,000 to 30,000 people 'at the most' were actively involved — that is about 5 per cent of all the workers and soldiers in the city — and this broadly tallies with the calculations based on the number of Red Guard units, Fleet crews and regiments which were mobilized. Most of them were involved in a limited fashion, such as guarding factories and strategic buildings, manning the pickets and generally 'standing by'. During the evening of the 25th, there were probably something in the region of 10,000 to 15,000 people milling around in the Palace Square; but not all of them were actually involved in the 'storming' of the palace, although many more would later claim that they had taken part.* Of course, once the palace had been seized, larger crowds of people did become involved, although, as we shall see, this was largely a question of looting its wine stores.29

The few surviving photographs of the October Days clearly show the small size of the insurgent force. They depict a handful of Red Guards and sailors standing around in half-deserted streets. None of the familiar images of a people's revolution — crowds on the street, barricades and fighting — were in evidence. The whole insurrection, as Trotsky himself acknowledged, was carried out as a coup d'etat with 'a series of small operations, calculated and prepared in advance'. The immediate vicinity of the Winter Palace was the only part of the city to be seriously disrupted during 25 October. Elsewhere the life of Petrograd carried on as normal. Streetcars and taxis ran as usual; the Nevsky was full of the normal crowds; and during the evening shops, restaurants, theatres and cinemas even remained open. The Marinsky Theatre went ahead with its scheduled performance of Boris Godunov; while the famous bass Shaliapin sang in Don Carlos before a packed house at the Narodny Dom. At around 9 p.m. John Reed was able to dine in the Hotel France, just off Palace Square, although after his soup the waiter asked him to move into the main dining-room at the back of the building, since they expected shooting to begin and wanted to put out the lights in the cafe. Even the climax of the insurrection passed by largely unnoticed. Volodya Averbakh was walking home by Gogol Street, not a hundred yards from Palace Square, at about 11 p.m., just as the Bolsheviks were readying themselves for their final assault on the Winter Palace. 'The street was completely deserted,' Averbakh recalled. 'The night was quiet, and the city seemed dead. We could even hear the echo of our own footsteps on the pavement.'30

In the workers' districts things were just as quiet, judging by the local police reports recently unearthed from the Soviet archives. Asked in the first week of November if there had been any mass armed movements in the October Days, the district police commissars responded, without exception, that there had been none. 'Everything was quiet on the streets,' replied the chief of the Okhtensk police district. 'The streets were empty,' added the police chief of the 3rd Spassky district. In the 1st Vyborg police district, the most Bolshevized part of the city, the police chief made the following report on 25 October: 'the Red Guards helped the police in the maintenance of order, and there were no night-time events to report, apart from the arrest of two drunken and disorderly soldiers, accused of shooting and wounding a man — also, it seems, drunk.'31 Thus began the Great October Socialist Revolution in the Bolshevik bastion of the Vyborg district.

* During the 1930s, when the party carried out a survey of the Red Guard veterans of October, 12 per cent of those responding claimed to have participated in the storming of the palace. On this calculation, 46,000 people would have been involved in the assault (Startsev, Ocherki, 275). It would be interesting to know the results of a similar survey of the Muscovite intelligentsia during the defence of the parliament building in August 1991. The number of people claiming to have been there, alongside Yeltsin on the tank, would probably run into the hundreds of thousands.


What about the nature of the crowd during the insurrection? The following incident tells us something about this.

When the Bolsheviks took control of the Winter Palace, they discovered one of the largest wine cellars ever known. During the following days tens of thousands of antique bottles disappeared from the vaults. The Bolshevik workers and soldiers were helping themselves to the Chateau d'Yquem 1847, the last Tsar's favourite vintage, and selling off the vodka to the crowds outside. The drunken mobs went on the rampage. The Winter Palace was badly vandalized. Shops and liquor stores were looted. Sailors and soldiers went around the well-to-do districts robbing apartments and killing people for sport. Anyone well dressed was an obvious target. Even Uritsky, the Bolshevik leader, narrowly escaped with his life, if not his clothes, when his sleigh was stopped one freezing night on his way home from the Smolny. With his warm overcoat, pince-nez and Jewish-intellectual looks, he had been mistaken for a burzhooi.

The Bolsheviks tried in vain to stem the anarchy by sealing off the liquor supply. They appointed a Commissar of the Winter Palace — who was constantly drunk on the job. They posted guards around the cellar — who licensed themselves to sell off the bottles of liquor. They pumped the wine out on to the street — but crowds gathered to drink it from the gutter. They tried to destroy the offending treasure, to transfer it to the Smolny, and even to ship it to Sweden — but all their efforts came to nothing. Hundreds of drunkards were thrown into jail — in one police precinct alone 182 people were arrested on the night of 4 November for drunkenness and looting — until there was no more room in the cells. Machine-guns were set up to deter the looters by firing over their heads — and sometimes at them — but still the looters came. For several weeks the anarchy continued — martial law was even imposed — until, at last, the alcohol ran out with the old year, and the capital woke up with the biggest hangover in history.

The Bolsheviks blamed the 'provocations of the bourgeoisie' for this bacchanalia. It was hard for them to admit that their own supporters, who were supposed to be the 'disciplined vanguard of the proletariat', could have been involved in such anarchic behaviour. But the recently opened records of the MRC show that many of those who had taken part in the seizure of power were the instigators of these drunken riots. Some of them, no doubt, had only taken part in the insurrection because of the prospect of loot: the whole uprising for them was a big adventure, a day out in the city with the rest of the lads, and with a licence to rob and kill. This is not to say that the Bolsheviks were simply hooligans and criminals, as many propertied types concluded at the time. But it is to say that the uprising was bound to descend into chaos because the Bolsheviks had at their disposal very few disciplined fighters and because the seizure of power itself, as a violent act, encouraged such actions from the crowd. Similar outbursts of looting and violence were noted in dozens of cities during and after October. Indeed, they were often an integral element of the transfer of power.32

All this suggests that the Bolshevik insurrection was not so much the culmination of a social revolution, although of course there were several different social revolutions — in the towns and in the cities, in the countryside, in the armed forces and in the borderlands — and in each of these there were militant forces that had some connections with the Bolsheviks. It was more the result of the degeneration of the urban revolution, and in particular of the workers' movement, as an organized and constructive force, with vandalism, crime, generalized violence and drunken looting as the main expressions of this social breakdown. Gorky, who was, as always, quick to condemn this anarchic violence, was at pains to point out that 'what is going on now is not a process of social revolution but a 'pogrom of greed, hatred and vengeance'.33 The participants in this destructive violence were not the organized 'working class' but the victims of the breakdown of that class and of the devastation of the war years: the growing army of the urban unemployed; the refugees from the occupied regions, soldiers and sailors, who congregated in the cities; bandits and criminals released from the jails; and the unskilled labourers from the countryside who had always been the most prone to outbursts of anarchic violence in the cities. These were the semi-peasant types whom Gorky had blamed for the urban violence in the spring and to whose support he had ascribed the rising fortunes of the Bolsheviks. He returned to the same theme on the eve of their seizure of power:

All the dark instincts of the crowd irritated by the disintegration of life and by the lies and filth of politics will flare up and fume, poisoning us with anger, hate and revenge; people will kill one another, unable to suppress their own animal stupidity. An unorganized crowd, hardly understanding what it wants, will crawl out into the street, and, using this crowd as a cover, adventurers, thieves, and professional murderers will begin to 'create the history of the Russian Revolution'.34

As for the Petrograd workers, they took little part in the insurrection. This was the height of the economic crisis and the fear of losing their jobs was enough to deter the vast majority of them from coming out on to the streets. Hence the factories and the transport system functioned much as normal. The workers, in any case, owed their allegiance to the Soviet rather than the Bolsheviks. Most of them did not know — or even wish to know — the differences of doctrine between the socialist parties. Their own voting patterns were determined by class rather than by party: they tended to vote as their factory had voted in the past, or opted for the party whose candidate seemed most like a worker and spoke the language of class. Among the unskilled, in particular, there was a common belief that the Bolsheviks were a party of 'big men' (from the peasant term bolshaki).

So when the leaders of the railwaymen's union, Vikzhel, issued an ultimatum on 29 October demanding that the Bolsheviks begin talks with the other socialist parties for the formation of an all-Soviet government, they received a great deal of support. To the mass of the workers, it seemed that the whole point of the revolution, as expressed at the Soviet Congress, was the formation of a government of the working people as a whole and not just of one party. Hundreds of factories, garrisons, Front and Fleet assemblies sent petitions to Smolny in support of the Vikzhel plan. The Obukhovsky Factory in Petrograd threatened to 'knock the heads of all the party leaders together' if they failed to reach agreement. The workers in Moscow and other provincial cities, where party factionalism was much less pronounced than in the capital, also expressed strong support. There was a general sense that the party leaders, by squabbling between themselves, were betraying the ideals of the revolution and leading the country towards civil war. Among the soldiers', declared a petition from the 35th Division, 'there are no Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, or SRs, but only Democrats.'35

There were powerful reasons, at least to begin with, for the Bolsheviks to respect Vikzhel's demands. The union's leaders had threatened to bring all the railways to a halt if the inter-party talks did not commence. If this happened the food and fuel supply in the capital, which had already declined to critical levels, would get even worse, looting and rioting would accelerate out of control, and thousands of workers would come out on strike. How long could the Bolsheviks last in this situation? The support of the railways was even more critical for the Bolshevik military campaign on two fronts: against Kerensky's troops on the outskirts of the capital; and in Moscow, where the Bolshevik forces had to fight for power in the streets against loyalist forces.

After his hasty departure from Petrograd on the morning of the 25th, Kerensky had set up his headquarters at Gatchina, the old imperial residence just outside the city. Most of the army commanders, to whom he appealed for help, were reluctant to become involved in a military adventure against the Bolsheviks: it was bound to be seen by the soldiers as 'counter-revolutionary' and, like the Kornilov crisis, could only hasten the collapse of the army. General Cheremisov, Commander of the Northern Front, even cancelled Kerensky's order for troops on the grounds that the Provisional Government no longer existed. Only General Krasnov put his forces — eighteen Cossack companies — at Kerensky's disposal; while a small force of cadets and officers, organized around the SR-led Committee for the Salvation of Russia and the Revolution, was supposed to rise up in the capital in time for their arrival. The Bolsheviks, however, had even fewer troops prepared to fight than Kerensky. The Petrograd garrison quickly fell apart after the seizure of power, as the mass of the soldiers went on a drunken rampage or fled to their homes in the countryside. The Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd had no direct link with the revolutionary troops at the Front, and even if they had it was doubtful the troops would come out on their call. According to Reed, Lenin was fully prepared for defeat. His best chance lay with the hold-up of Krasnov's troops, situated around Pskov, by the railway workers, as had happened during the Kornilov crisis. Hence the need to respond to the Vikzhel ultimatum.

In Moscow, meanwhile, power hung in the balance for ten days. The MRC forces were engaged in a bloody street war — the opening shots of the civil war — against the military cadets and student volunteers, who remained loyal to the Provisional Government and were organized by the Moscow city Duma and its Committee of Public Safety. The heaviest fighting took place around the Kremlin, and many of the city's greatest architectural treasures were badly damaged. For ordinary Muscovites, too frightened to leave their homes, these were terrible days. Brusilov's flat was caught in the crossfire, and was used by soldiers of both sides to shoot or signal from the windows. The old man himself was badly wounded in the leg when a hand grenade flew in through the window. He had to be stretchered out to receive treatment in a nearby hospital, while 'bombs and bullets continued to fly in all directions. I prayed all the way that none of them would hit my poor old wife, who walked along by my side.'36 The Moscow Bolsheviks were reluctant fighters — they were much more inclined to resolve the power question through negotiation, as proposed by Vikzhel. Nor were they very good at fighting: the Kremlin was soon lost in the opening battle on the 27th; and two days later the situation had become so bad, with the Bolshevik forces pushed back into the industrial suburbs, that they were frankly glad of the temporary ceasefire enforced by the intervention of Vikzhel. Without victory in Moscow, even Lenin recognized that the Bolsheviks could not retain power on their own. The inter-party talks would have to go ahead.


On 29 October the Central Committee authorized Kamenev to represent the party at the Vikzhel inter-party talks on the platform of Soviet power, as passed at the Second Congress. It was always going to be hard to persuade the right-wing Mensheviks and SRs to accept this, or indeed any partnership with the Bolshevik Party, after their walk-out from the Soviet Congress in protest against the seizure of power. At the opening meeting, confident that the Bolsheviks were on the verge of defeat, they set impossible terms for their involvement in any government: the release of the ministers arrested in the seizure of the Winter Palace; an armistice with Kerensky's troops; the abolition of the MRC; the transfer of the Petrograd garrison to the control of the Duma; and the involvement of Kerensky in the formation of the new administration, which was to exclude Lenin. In short, they were demanding that the clock be put back to 20 October. No wonder Kamenev sounded glum in his report to the Soviet Congress that evening.

On the next day, however, things began to change. Kerensky's offensive had collapsed overnight, much in the manner of Krymov's earlier assault on Petrograd during the Kornilov crisis. Most of Krasnov's Cossacks, who had always been reluctant to fight without infantry support, simply gave up under a barrage from Bolshevik agitators, while the rest were easily repulsed by the Baltic troops on the Pulkovo Heights just outside the city. The Mensheviks and SRs were forced to soften their terms and agreed to take part in a coalition with the Bolsheviks, provided the leadership of the Soviet was broadened to include members from the First Soviet Congress, the city Dumas, the Peasant Soviet (which was still to convene) and the trade unions. Kamenev agreed and even suggested, in a moment of naive credulity, that the Bolsheviks would not insist on the presence of Lenin or Trotsky in the cabinet. But they had different ideas.

From the start, Lenin and Trotsky had been opposed to the Vikzhel talks: only the prospect of military defeat had brought them to the negotiating table. With the defeat of Kerensky, and even the battle in Moscow now beginning to swing back in their favour, with much of the city centre back in Bolshevik hands and the Kremlin itself under heavy bombardment, they set out to undermine the inter-party talks. At a meeting of the Central Committee on I November Trotsky condemned the compromise agreed by Kamenev and demanded at least 75 per cent of the cabinet seats for the Bolshevik Party: 'there was no point organizing the insurrection if we don't get the majority'. Lenin advocated leaving the talks altogether, or at least continuing with them only as 'a diplomatic cover for the military operations [in Moscow]'. He even demanded the arrest of the Vikzhel leaders as 'counter-revolutionaries' — a typical provocation designed to wreck the talks, along with the arrest and beating up of the SR leaders, Gots and Zenzinov, by Bolshevik sailors, the closure of the Kadet press, and a series of raids on Menshevik and SR newspaper offices. Despite the objections of several moderate members of the Central Committee, it was agreed to present the Bolshevik platform as an ultimatum to the inter-party talks and abandon them if it was rejected. The SRs and Mensheviks would of course never accept this, as Lenin and Trotsky knew very well. The seizure of power had irrevocably split the socialist movement in Russia, and no amount of negotiation could hope to bridge the gulf. The Vikzhel talks were doomed, and finally broke down on 6 November.37

The chances of a coalition were extremely limited. It was almost certainly too late to resolve the power question by political means. The events of 25 October marked the beginning of the civil war. And yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was precisely what Lenin had wanted all along. He believed that the civil war had started back in August, and that the 'talk talk' of all the moderators just got in the way.

Having secured the dictatorship of his party, Lenin turned next to the task of securing his own dictatorship over the party itself. On 2 November the Central Committee was bullied into passing a series of quite astounding resolutions: Kamenev was accused of 'un-Marxist' activities against the October Revolution; his supporters were ordered to withdraw from the Central Committee; and if they failed to submit to the party's policy against the inter-party talks — submitted in the form of an 'Ultimatum from the majority of the Central Committee to the minority' — were threatened with expulsion from the party altogether. Each member of the Central Committee was dragged before Lenin, in his private office, and told to sign the ultimatum or risk expulsion. As Lunacharsky had warned at a meeting of the Petrograd Bolsheviks on I November, Lenin's bullying tactics would soon lead to a situation where 'only one man would be left in the Party — the Dictator'. It was a haunting echo of Trotsky's own famous warning, fourteen years before, that the party organization would first substitute itself for the party as a whole, then the Central Committee for the party organization, and then a single dictator for the Central Committee. On 4 November the five-man minority (Kamenev, Zinoviev, Rykov, Miliutin and Nogin) finally resigned from the Central Committee. Their open letter of protest appeared in Lzvestiia the following day. Alongside it was printed a second letter of protest from five People's Commissars, a third of Lenin's cabinet, four who resigned and six other prominent Bolshevik leaders, in which it was stated that a purely Bolshevik government could be maintained only by means of 'political terror' and that, if this path was taken, it would lead to 'the establishment of an unaccountable regime and to the destruction of the revolution and the country'.38

This was without doubt one of the most critical moments in the history of the Bolshevik Party. Though Lenin's revolution had been carried out, the party emerged from it hopelessly divided and isolated from the rest of the revolutionary movement. Few people believed, in its second week, that the Bolshevik regime could survive.

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