The October Revolution. The Storming of the Winter Palace. The Bolshevik Uprising. Red October. Today is the 100th anniversary of these momentous events.
I’m fully aware it is the 7th November, what you have to remember is that Russia changed its calendar shortly after the revolution, so the events took place on October 25th and 26th on the old calendar. But whichever calendar you use, the events took place exactly 100 years ago today.
As depicted in the textbooks and films it all sounds rather exciting, like most things Soviet the truth is a little bit more prosaic and mired in convoluted explanations of a bureaucratic nature. The Russian Empire had in fact fallen in February 1917, the Tsar had abdicated and a provisional government had taken control. While this was a government dominated by communists, they were fractured, disparate group of factions who could barely agree on anything. In general you had the Bolsheviks arguing from the left for extremist action, overthrow of the capitalist regime and appropriation of the assets of the State, and the Mensheviks taking a more pragmatic, centrist position, taking into account the country’s economic crisis and that they were still embroiled in the First World War.
The Bolsheviks dominated the two major cities, and by and large had control of the workers, the peasants and the naval soldiers. They also had Lenin and Trotsky, two men who understood the mechanics of power, what it took to obtain it, and what was necessary to exercise and maintain it. The Provisional Government was headed by a man called Kerensky, of the Menshevik faction.
St Petersburg was the capitol and the seat of the Provisional Government, at the time it was known as Petrograd. The Bolsheviks knew Constituent Assembly elections were coming up and while popular, they remained one faction amongst many and would not be able to exercise complete control and do what needed to be done, in their view, to protect the people. So over many weeks – not really very secretly – they plotted their coup.
No other faction had sufficient power to stop them, even though everyone knew what was happening. They controlled the telegram engineers, so they controlled communication across Russia. They controlled the Soviets – the local regional bodies representing the workers and farmers, and through them they could get their message to most of the population. They had access to man-power through the factory workers of the capitol, and by controlling the union of naval enlistees, they had access to military power, specifically a warship called Aurora.
It was Aurora that gave the signal – firing a blank – that started the revolution. Bolshevik forces didn’t so much storm the Winter Palace as just walk in the back door. It was the first time some of them had seen such opulence and luxury. The Provisional Government sat in the Winter Palace and most of them were very quickly located and arrested. The mostly illiterate Bolshevik workers obliged them to write up their own arrest papers. Elsewhere other groups of workers were taking control of the state newspaper and other key locations.
Kerensky escaped – apparently borrowing a Renault from the American embassy and just driving out of the city. He later tried coming back with an army but they turned on him when he commanded them to fire on civilians. But on the day the revolution took place, only a couple of people died. From the outside very little appeared to have changed. Instead of the Provisional Government, a new provisional authority was established, headed by Lenin and composed solely of Bolsheviks. The planned elections went ahead a few weeks later, but the Bolsheviks were not hugely successful and ultimately the Assembly was disbanded and all its powers transferred to the Soviets (the local representative committees). Lenin and the Bolsheviks began to systematically consolidate and reinforce their control over the instruments of governance. One of the measures taken to achieve this objective, less than a year later, was the execution of the former Tsar and all his family.
Lenin’s immediately stated policies included taking steps to end Russian involvement in the war, the repudiation of all foreign debt, and the appropriation of all land and private assets, for distribution among the farmers and workers. Unsurprisingly his government was not recognised, either inside nor outside the country and there were several years of civil war before the Bolsheviks could exercise real control over the whole country. Steps such as setting up a special police force with very wide powers (the Cheka) and creating a viable, reliable military (the Red Army) eventually made this possible.
Eventually in 1922 the Soviet Union was formally established (with Russia one constituent part among many), and the date of the October Revolution was fixed as a national holiday, and remained so during the existence of the USSR. Nowadays it is not an official holiday but many people still mark, celebrate or remember it; today in particular TV stations have been showing many documentaries and films about the events. I suspect that is why my school’s offices closed early last night. I have Lenin to thank.