In 1917, Lenin and many other revolutionaries returned from exile when they were given permission by the Germans to cross Germany. The Germans hoped they would undermine support for the government and end Russian involvement in World War I. Lenin pushed the then small Bolshevik party into action, with campaigns aimed at ending the war. The failure of Russia's all-out offensive in the war further undermined support for the provisional government, leading many to encourage the soviet to seize power. The Bolsheviks took control of this movement, and despite being suppressed by the government, succeeded in gaining popular support.

The Bolsheviks aided the provisional government in defeating a coup attempt by General Kornilov, leading them to eventually gain a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. On the night of Nov. 6th (Oct. 24th in the Russian calendar), the Bolsheviks staged a coup d'etat, engineered by Leon Trotsky, and affirmed the seizure of power by a vote in the soviet (after the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries walked out). They then formed a cabinet, known as the Council of People's Commissars, with Lenin as chairman, Trotsky as foreign commissar, Aleksey Rykov as interior commissar, and Josef Stalin as commissar of nationalities. They then negotiated an end to WWI, with the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

See also: Russian Civil War


In February of 1917 the first Russian Revolution broke out. The Tsar was overthrown and Russia ceased to be a Monarchy (wisely, no-one would accept the title after the Tsar abdicated). Russia was now the freest country in the world, and a new form of government was needed. What was created was a system of dual power, with two nodes - the Provisional Government, and the Soviet. The former represented the interests of the bourgeoisie and landowning classes, and the latter the workers, peasants and soldiers. The attempt to reconcile the different demands of these groups eventually proved impossible, especially for the rather mediocre talents of Kingmaker Alexander Kerensky. The idea was that these two nodes would agree on the convening of a Constituent Assembly by plebiscite, which would then become a sovereign body.

The question of why this experiment in democracy ended up simply imposing another autocratic regime very similar to the last on Russia is one of the most important of the 20th century. A number of crises occured for the Provisional Government between February and October, such as in July when they tried to despatch the garrison of Petrograd - the capital - to face the Germans at the Front. Gradually all respect for the government was lost, and the masses sought something new. Lacking a will of their own, they needed a strong leader to impose one.

For additional background, see my write-up under Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, specifically the section "Lenin's Revolution".

Why the Bolsheviks were able to take power

Some time after the event, Lenin said that starting the world revolution in Russia was as easy as "picking up a feather". His reflection is largely borne out by events. The events of October 24, 1917 involved only a few thousand people out of a nation of one hundred and fifty millions, and took place without much bloodshed. The Bolsheviks were able to pick up power relatively easily because the existing government had lost its credibility among the masses of soldiers and workers whose job it technically was to protect it, but who rather cared to protect "the revolution". The Bolsheviks did not need to convince the Petrograd garrison to fight for them – just not to fight for the Provisional Government. They were unlikely to do so because the Government's credibility had been steadily declining due to its inability to solve the economic crisis and end the war. There existed irreconcilable tensions in the structure of dual power, as they broadly represented the interests of two different classes who both thought they had a claim on the same economic resources and had a different view of the war. The only link between them had been Kerensky, who had seen his prestige decline with the Left after the June Offensive, and with the Right as well after the Kornilov affair. The July Days had shown that the Menshevik and Social-Revolutionary dominated Soviet Executive Committee would not take power, as well as highlighting the powerlessness of the masses to act without firm leadership. By the night of October 24, people felt they had nowhere to turn. The Bolsheviks could pick up power because they alone had consistently sought it, and all everyone else did was simply walk away and let them take it.

The Provisional Government had originally enjoyed widespread favour among the masses, and loyalist troops had been available to defend it up until the July Days. But dominated as it was by the bourgeois Kadet party, it had irreconcilable differences with the other node of the dual power system, the Soviet EC. These differences were exacerbated and brought to the surface by events between February and October, until finally the masses were not willing to defend it. The Kadets, knowing the Constituent Assembly would be dominated by Mensheviks and SRs, did not want to convene it until the war was over, when they hoped a wave of patriotic enthusiasm would bring about a more favourable electoral environment for the Right. They similarly delayed decisions on the land question and the nationalities question, pending the convention of the CA. This was all well and good so long as the soldiers and workers of Petrograd supported the government, but when they didn't it was revealed who had real power in their hands. The force of the government was only moral, because the masses had the power to seize the land, end the war and change labour relations if they so wished. The people had risen against the Tsar when his moral authority had disappeared, and so they could rise against the new government – and they would hardly fight against those who promised to give them what they wanted. When the moral authority of the Provisional Government was gone, there was only one group not tainted by association with it – the Bolsheviks, who promised bread, land and peace.

Kerensky had once enjoyed widespread support among the soldiers and workers. He was "the first love of the Revolution" and the only major politician who had a base of popular support as well as been admired by the Right. But by having a foot in both camps he became the point of tension between them, and was faced with trying to resolve their differences. He represented hope of a coalition between the Left and Right, but this middle ground was gradually eroded as both became more radicalised. The Kornilov affair finished Kerensky off. The Right largely remained faithful to Kornilov, and could not forgive Kerensky for having betrayed him. Kornilov’s fellow prisoners in Bykhov would later become the nucleus of the White armies during the civil war, along with the High Command – but they repudiated Kerensky just as strongly as the Bolsheviks, because none of these elements came to the defence of the Provisional Government in October. Meanwhile, the Left suspected Kerensky as having somehow been involved in the Commander-in-Chief's attempted coup. The soldiers demonstrated their power by arresting and murdering hundreds of officers, and the prestige of the government declined because the Kadets were clearly associated with the Kornilov movement and therefore the "counter-revolution". The Bolsheviks won their first majority in the Petrograd Soviet on August 31.

The moderate socialists, who enjoyed more electoral support than the Bolsheviks, let their hands be tied by their own fears. Their main fear was not the Bolsheviks, but the counter-revolution. They feared to decisively turn against the Bolsheviks because this would give the counter-revolution confidence, and they feared to alienate the Provisional Government in case it took a veer rightwards. Because they believed the army to be a ferment of counter-revolution, they sought an alliance with the right-wing officer corps that wanted to end the war in Europe by beating the Kaiser. The Bolsheviks were intransigent in calling for peace, but the moderate socialists – determined to modernise Russia in alliance with bourgeois society – believed that the army's morale would hold up, so the war could be won. Winning the war was seen as necessary to prevent the soldiers becoming susceptible to right-wing propaganda, and to stop the Kaiser dominating Europe and subsequently crushing the Revolution. An alliance with the liberals would also stop the working-class becoming isolated, and compromise would stop the Right growing restless. In many of these views they were out of tune with the masses, particularly in the army. The army was the Bolshevik's main constituency, and their program of bread, land and peace had been unchanging. The moderate socialists became increasingly tainted by their involvement in the unpopular Provisional Government, and the EC was widely chastised for not having organised resistance to Kornilov. The resistance had been organised by the grass roots organisations that were the Bolshevik’s forte, and these organisations only proliferated after the affair. The "popular revolution" was becoming increasingly radicalised and restless, but the Mensheviks and SRs had not abandoned the assumptions they formed in February. The popular revolution had to look elsewhere for a protector, and found it in the Bolsheviks.

Lenin had opposed the Provisional Government before he even knew much about it. For him, it was enough for it to be a liberal institution for it to deserve opposition. "No support for the Provisional Government" he wrote simply in the April Theses. It was "imperialist" and "capitalist", and therefore the true socialist could not compromise himself by co-operating with it. The Bolsheviks were hence in constant opposition to the government, and enjoyed all the benefits this brought. They didn’t have to deal in issues of practicalities because they never had the power to actually implement their policies, so they could simply offer the masses everything they wanted. The peasants would get their land, the soldiers would get their peace, and the workers would get control of the means of production. To the elite of the Bolshevik Party, Russia was merely a stepping stone to bring about the worldwide proletarian revolution. It was believed that as soon as the proletarian stage of the revolution was actualised in Russia, the rest of the belligerent powers in the war would fall shortly afterwards. This meant they didn’t have to be responsible in thinking about how to run Russia and could be reckless in their promises, and they found the transition very difficult, just as the moderate socialists had after February. "It’s dizzying" is how Lenin described the transition to power to Trotsky. It was precisely because of this apartness – as the only party that rejected February – that the masses would be drawn to the party when they grew disillusioned with the system of dual power.

The moderate socialists believed that Lenin would lead Russia to its ruin – he had earlier been accused of "planting the banner of civil war in the midst of revolutionary democracy". But when the crucial moments came, they failed to stop him. Although the SRs garnered about 40% of the votes in the Constituent Assembly, they had never managed to turn the masses against the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were able to pick up power without opposition from the SRs because the main constituency of the latter was in the countryside, whereas governments were made and destroyed in Petrograd and Moscow. The Bolsheviks would later have to fight a brutal war against the peasantry, who really had no reason to support the Bolsheviks’ "dictatorship of the proletariat" but were perhaps partially hoodwinked into doing so by their adoption of the SR land program. Where SR and Bolshevik agitation was at similar levels the peasantry voted roughly fifty per cent each way. But because they were not a coherently organised political force, they were not able to decisively influence what happened in the cities. It was the soldiers and workers of Petrograd who saw themselves as the protectors of the Revolution and had the power to change governments through illegal means, and by the eve of October the Bolsheviks had a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. This does not mean the soldiers and workers of Petrograd brought about the October coup – they simply didn’t oppose it, which was enough. Government changes had become frequent, and the replacement of the bourgeois Provisional Government by the (Bolshevik-dominated) Soviet could only be viewed as a good thing by the masses of Petrograd.

On the night of the coup, the Bolsheviks very literally "picked up" power. State employees at government installations simply got up and walked away when the Bolshevik troops arrived. The deposed Minister of the Interior handed his Bolshevik captor a telegram from the Ukrainian Rada and said "now it's your problem". Hardly any troops could be mustered to protect the Ministers in the Winter Palace, and the defenders consisted of army cadets, the Women's Battalion of Death and an officer with artificial legs. All of these eventually abandoned the Ministers. There was no longer any hope of calling the army to defend the Provisional Government – the rank-and-file soldiers had no intention of defending it after it had launched the June offensive, and then behaved in such a "counter-revolutionary" manner in July (by trying to dispatch the 1st Machine Gun Regiment to the front), and failed to crack down on the Kornilov movement. The officer corps couldn’t forgive its betrayal of Kornilov. The SRs and Mensheviks could hardly call upon the masses of Petrograd to resist the Bolsheviks, because that would be seen as splitting the revolution – and the Bolsheviks were now making a good claim to represent "the revolution" on their own.

The only hope for the moderate socialists was to form a coalition with the Bolsheviks, but here again the Bolsheviks simply picked up power. At the Second Soviet Congress, the moderate socialists denounced the attack on the Provisional Government, and the Mensheviks and SRs walked out. Sukhanov later conceded in 1921 that this "untied the Bolsheviks' hands, making them masters of the whole situation and yielding to them the arena of the Revolution." To most delegates this showed their "counter-revolutionary" character, and through a little political manoeuvring and show of force the Bolsheviks had brought into the open the split between the moderate socialists and the popular revolution. A resolution was passed declaring Soviet power. The Bolsheviks had laid the foundation for their own control of the revolution and the creation of a one-party state.

The opponents of the Bolsheviks were never able to stop them picking up power because the logic of the revolution in the minds of the masses drove inexorably to Soviet power, which would mean land, bread and peace. The Bolsheviks were the only party that declared this as their aim from the start, and the only party which didn’t compromise themselves by fraternising with bourgeois liberal elements. Because the masses held the real power in the country – the power to change the situation and form of government if they so wished and had leadership – the Bolsheviks could guarantee not been opposed in a Petrograd coup by October. The grass roots of the revolution – the soldiers and workers – had always wanted bread, land and peace, and eventually it seemed like only one party was able to give it to them. And even if the Bolsheviks became victims of a counter-coup – as was predicted they might almost immediately after October, then nothing would be lost. The masses thought things couldn't possibly get any worse.


Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution 1899 – 1919 (1992)
E. Acton, Rethinking the Russian Revolution (1990)
O. Figes and B. Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (1999)
O. Figes, A People's Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891 – 1924 (1996)
S. Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution 1917 - 1932
Richard Pipes, Three Whys of the Russian Revolution (1995)
C. Read, From Czar to Soviets (1996)

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