|Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov -|
The previous post on Russia (See 27/8/2017) described how the public mood lurched from one extreme to the other during the chaos of the July days; and how violence, looting and anarchy threatened society across Russia in different ways. Kerensky remained Prime Minister of a shaky Provisional Government (PG) and was still a threat to those who would wish to usurp him. Kornilov’s military coup had been snuffed out, and he had been succeeded as head of the Stavka (army) by the more dependable Alexeev. Across the border in Finland, Lenin was hiding away from the warrant for his arrest issued by Kerensky. He was nevertheless attempting to orchestrate the overthrow of the PG, knowing that this would likely provoke civil war across Russia – something he felt was necessary for a true proletarian revolution to succeed. The more democratically minded Bolsheviks in the Petrograd Soviet, led by Kamenev and Zinoviev, were strongly opposed to such an uprising, mainly for fear of being destroyed by an overwhelming counter-revolution (as had happened to the communards in Paris in 1871).
In late August, the Petrograd Soviet passed the Bolshevik resolution “On Power” (including Lenin’s slogan “All power to the Soviets”) as tensions increased in the frail partnership between PG and Soviet. The Moscow Soviet backed this a few days later, and by mid-September more than 80 Soviets in large towns and cities had backed the call, and the slogan. In most of these Bolsheviks were outnumbered by Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and their factions; Mensheviks and others. However, the Bolsheviks tended to be the most vocal and influential, and often gained themselves majority positions on executive groups. Overall there was a strong consensus supporting the Petrograd Soviet’s call for an All-Russia Congress of Soviets to establish a position on national government. Nevertheless, as the weeks passed uncertainly, there was a growing political awareness and militancy among the workers (influenced more by the touring Trotsky than the exiled Lenin). Violence, looting and pogroms were widespread and it seemed anarchy would replace democracy. The conditions were turning in Lenin’s favour.
Still the leadership of the Soviet did not react to the changing positions, and take the opportunity to challenge the PG’s weak position. Kamenev issued a call for the All-Russia Soviets congress to take place in Petrograd on October 20th (2nd November Gregorian*), at which the coalition of revolutionary groups would determine their position regarding national government. Lenin, presumably seething with frustration, risked a return to Russia, to Vyborg 80 miles north of Petrograd, to communicate better with his erstwhile colleagues. From there, he harangued Kamenev and others with letters urging an uprising before the Congress. He was convinced the Bolsheviks had to lead, rather than be a minority partner in a Soviet leftist coalition. His demands became more strident, and he was obliged to drop his “all power to the soviets” slogan. His absence from the hub of activity at this time clearly impacted on his influence.
Without his input, a
‘Democratic conference’ was held on 14th September to guide the
Petrograd Soviet’s stance in negotiating with Kerensky about his new PG. In
practical terms this was a disaster. No firm conclusion were drawn as, again,
the intellectuals of the movement argued over principles and dogma. Kerensky
was left free to reshuffle his PG giving even less influence to the Soviet than
in the previous version. Lenin’s best support at this time came from Trotsky,
whose recent conversion to Bolshevism allied to his brilliant rhetoric was
influencing the proletariat that Lenin wanted to arouse. At the end of
September Lenin went public with his letters, openly denouncing the Soviet leadership
as “miserable traitors to the proletarian
cause”. Kamenev called for Lenin’s arrest, and re-issued his decision that
no precipitate moves should be planned pending the Congress on 20th
|Kamenev (r) and Zinoviev. Men of principle|
but not equal to the resolve of Lenin.
The fuse for John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” ** was now lit. On 10th October, Lenin returned to Petrograd disguised as a pastor, and took a room in a party worker’s apartment. From there he convened a secret meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee (ironically in the house of a prominent Menshevik whose wife was a devotee of Lenin). Only twelve of the 21 members of the committee were able to attend to hear Lenin’s urging for an uprising before the Congress. However, they supported it by 10 votes to 2. The dissenters were Kamenev and Zinoviev. They had been upstaged, but no date for the action had been set, and the full committee would decide.
Lenin’s plan was for the ‘northern’ Soviet’s pre-Congress meeting, scheduled for 11-13th October in Petrograd to provide the vote for the uprising. He thought he had them in his pocket (he had not been wasting his time in the north), but Kamenev attended and struck back with a resolution that passed – namely that Congress should decide on 20th October, and not before.
On 16th October (29th Gregorian) the same drama played out at the Bolshevik Central Committee, housed in Smolny Palace. This time Lenin was present and his influence carried the day. A majority of the full committee backed his proposal. Kamelev resigned amid bitterness and rancour, and he now went public with his grievances. The Soviet leadership, alarmed by the development, postponed the Congress by five days in order to bring in more of their own (non-Bolshevik) members from distant Soviets.
|The Smolny Institute. Formerly an |
institution for daughters of the rich,
a hotbed of Bolshevik politics in
But Lenin’s proletarian revolution now had the momentum and he was able to use the additional time to prepare his actions in Petrograd. He put Trotsky in charge of the local Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC), ostensibly as a protective move for the Soviet (in fact it was a purely Bolshevik vehicle). Kerensky’s erratic response was to declare war on the Bolsheviks, and to order the Petrograd garrison to the war front 100 miles away (the latter because he doubted their loyalty and was considering moving the PG to Moscow). His move backfired badly. The garrison refused to leave the city and fell straight into the arms of the MRC. This, on 21st October (3rd Nov Gregorian), was the first act of the insurrection. By 23rd they had occupied the St Peter and Paul Fortress, and thereby control of the artillery overlooking the home of the PG – the Winter Palace.
By the time the fabled (and delayed) All-Russia Soviets Congress started on the morning of 25th (8th November Gregorian) the PG was locked in the Winter Palace, surrounded and defenceless. Key buildings and services had been taken over. Lenin's power seizure was at hand. Like the Democratic conference in September, the Congress proved to be a shambles, working perfectly in Lenin’s favour. The Mensheviks, SRs and some of the moderate Bolsheviks walked out of the meeting in protest at Lenin’s coup, foregoing a final chance to argue the position round to a coalition Soviet government. Lenin had the initiative. Where most people expected him to lead a Soviet government ahead of an elected Constitutional Assembly (still the holy grail since the February Revolution), Lenin instead created a Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). All fifteen of its members were Bolsheviks.
The Sovnarkom announced Constitutional Assembly elections for January 1918, and these duly took place with nearly 50 million people voting. The results were both fascinating and meaningless. Fascinating, in that approximate results were: SRs 38%; Bolsheviks 23%; Kadets 5%; Mensheviks 4%; and nationalist non-Russian parties 17%. Meaningless, because in the intervening three months Lenin’s Bolsheviks had gone a long way to establishing a one-party state by seizing control of national institutions and local Soviets; and by fomenting violence, looting, repression and revenge.
At its convocation in January 1918, the Bolsheviks, signalling their intention to defend what they had seized, immediately closed the Constituent Assembly, and civil war became inevitable. By conviction, determination, improvisation and strength of character Lenin had become the most significant revolutionary leader in history. Russia’s experiment with democracy was over. The October Revolution had seized power with even less bloodshed than the February event. But what followed – in mob violence, the ‘Red Terror’ and a prolonged civil war – was far worse.
* NB Russia still used the Julian Calendar until the following year. Its dates run 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar
** Communist and Journalist John Reed's eye witness account of those momentous events conveys powerfully the confusion and volatility of the time.