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Russia's Bolshevik Revolution

A Bulgarian postcard of Red Army soldiers at rest, with rifles stacked, and reading newspapers or leaflets.
Text (reverse):
Чървено-армейци на цочивка
Серия В., 3/13
Red Army at rest
Series B., 3/13

A Bulgarian postcard of Red Army soldiers at rest, with rifles stacked, and reading newspapers or leaflets.

Image text


Чървено-армейци на цочивка

Серия В., 3/13

Red Army at rest

Series B., 3/13

Other views: Larger, Back

September, 1917 to January 1918


Russia's Last Offensive

The Russian Revolution of February (Old Style, March, New Style), led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, the establishment of a government composed of members of the Duma, and a soviet with which the Duma divided power. When the Foreign Minister notified the Allies that Russia recognized its obligations to them, and that she would fight on, soldiers and protesters opposed to the war gathered outside government offices, forcing the replacement of the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and War. Alexander Kerensky, a leading socialist and the Minister of Justice, assumed the position of Minister for War. A supporter of the war and the previously agreed plan for coordinated Allied offensives, Kerensky launched his own offensive on July 1, 1917. It was a disaster, with 200,000 Russian casualties, 40,000 of them killed.

The July Days and Kornilov's Revolt

Russia's defeat led to more confusion in the capital. In what is known as 'the July Days', protesters again took to the streets to demand a halt to the war, and, because of Vladimir Lenin's and the Bolsheviks' opposition to the war, turned to them to lead a renewed revolution. But the Bolsheviks were not prepared to seize power, and helped dampen the protests. At the same time, the government released documents indicating that Lenin was a German agent. As the public turned against him, the government rounded up Bolsheviks and other opponents, arresting Leon Trotsky and forcing Lenin to flee to Finland.

A pencil sketch of a Russian soldier fleeing his trench as Central Power bayonets rise over it. The Kerensky Offensive, the last significant Russian offensive of the war, failed. By Ger. F. Kollar, addressed to Frau Hermine Kollar of Vienna.
Russlands = Offensive 1917

On July 20, Kerensky, his failed offensive behind him and Petrograd quieting, replaced Prince Lvov, and formed a government with himself holding the posts of Prime Minister and War Minister. Within two weeks he threatened to resign, but formed another government, one further to the right, but not far enough for a group that began to coalesce around Russian Commander-in-Chief Kornilov. At the end of August, Kerensky called for a State Conference in Moscow, hoping to come to terms with Kornilov and the right far from Petrograd's heated environment. The conference included representatives from the Duma, the Soviets, industry, labor, and the military, including all major parties other than the Bolsheviks. Kornilov spoke of the need to abolish the revolutionary changes that had been made in the military, to reassert officers' authority, to re-institute execution for desertion and other offenses, and, with a re-invigorated Army, to return to fighting the war.

After the Conference ended on August 29 with no firm agreement between the two, Kerensky and Kornilov each tried to lure the other from his seat, Kerensky from Petrograd, Kornilov from his headquarters at Mogilev, mid-way between Moscow and Petrograd. German forces resumed their advance and took Riga, a major Russian Baltic port, on September 3. Neither Kerensky nor Kornilov could control the situation or the troops they imagined they commanded, but Kornilov had the more difficult task of taking the capital. With strong support in the army and navy, the Petrograd Soviet had more control of the situation than Kerensky, formed a military committee to defend the capital, and, on September 9, armed men and and soldiers, including the Bolsheviks, some of them newly released from prison. On September 12, Kerensky appointed himself Commander-in-Chief of the army, and ordered Kornilov's arrest, an order carried out the next day. As more generals were arrested or dismissed, Kerensky created a five-man directory and proclaimed a republic. Although the Kornilov threat was ended, the armed Red Guards remained. The provisional government also arrested the former Tsar Nicholas and his family, and sent them to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.

The Bolsheviks Prepare

The Kornilov affair damaged the right, which was now represented by Kerensky's government. In factories, the army and navy, Moscow, Petrograd, and other cities, more Bolsheviks were being elected to the Soviets. On September 12, the Petrograd Soviet passed a Bolshevik resolution calling for an immediate end to the war, and for a government composed entirely of socialists. The Bolsheviks called for a new election for the presidium of the Petrograd Soviet, won the vote, and established a Bolshevik-dominated presidium on October 8. The Moscow Soviet elected a Bolshevik as chairman on September 23. Similar patterns were played out in Soviets across the country.

Hoping to gain control of the situation, Kerensky held a conference in Petrograd to prepare for elections of a Constituent Assembly in November which created a 'pre-Parliament' to legislate prior to the election. This opened on October 20 with about 60 Bolsheviks of 550 delegates. Trotsky spoke, sometimes shouted down, but closed by calling for an immediate and honorable end to the war, and the transfer of 'all power to the Soviets, all land to the people.' Trotsky and his fellow Bolsheviks then left.

On October 23, the Bolshevik Central Committee met and by the early morning voted Lenin's program for immediate revolution. On the 25th, the Petrograd Soviet passed a resolution to defend the capital against 'Kornilovist pogroms.' Trotsky distributed an additional 5,000 rifles to the Bolsheviks. On October 29, Lenin again carried a motion in the Bolshevik Central Committee for the immediate seizure of power, prior to the convening of the Constituent Assembly, which was delayed to November 7 by the non-Bolshevik Executive Committee.

Polkovnikov, the military commander of Petrograd, forbade further demonstrations and posted a guard around the Winter Palace where Kerensky and his cabinet met. Trotsky assigned Soviet commissars to the regiments within the city; most accepted them. On November 4, when Polkovnikov refused to include Bolsheviks in his staff conferences, Trotsky ordered soldiers to occupy strategic points throughout the city. On the 5th Kerensky declared an emergency and ordered Polkovnikov to take action against disturbances, but Polkovnikov did little. The same day, Trotsky won over the garrison at the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, a prison and strongly fortified position in the city, and distributed another 10,000 small arms to the Red Guards.

The Bolsheviks Seize Power

On the morning of November 6, Polkovnikov cut the telephone lines to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute, a former girls school, and attempted to close the party's newspapers. The pre-Parliament was in session, and Kerensky tried, but failed to convince the delegates to use force against the Bolsheviks. That evening, the All-Russia Congress held a preliminary meeting in preparation for the Congress the following day, both in the Smolny Institute, Bolshevik headquarters. Of the 560 delegates, 250 were Bolsheviks, but by the time a chaotic meeting ended, it was clear the Bolsheviks would have a majority in the Congress.

A steamer flying the Russian flag passes before the Winter Palace on the Neva River, St. Petersburg, Russia. The card was posted in St. Petersburg December 21, 1913.

By the next morning, November 7, the Red Guards were in the street, seizing, or having already seized during the night, railway and power stations, the bridges of the city, and the telephone exchange. Kerensky left the city in search of soldiers to support the Provisional Government which, by 10 a.m., Trotsky's Military Revolutionary Committee declared had fallen.

Twenty thousand Red Guards patrolled the streets, and warships and sailors were coming from Finland and the naval base at Kronstadt to support the Bolsheviks. Soldiers and sailors dispersed the delegates of the pre-Parliament. The remaining cabinet members sheltered in the Winter Palace with somewhat over 1,000 soldiers to protect them. When they refused to surrender, the battleship Aurora shelled the palace at about 9:00 p.m., doing some damage, but causing some defenders to surrender. Red Guards, soldiers, and sailors began to break into the massive building. The battery of the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul opened fire at about 11:00 p.m. By 2:00 A.M. on November 8, Red Guards made their way to the inner room where the ministers were and arrested them. None of the defenders had been injured during the day.

During the 7th, while the Winter Palace had been under siege, the Second Soviet Congress had met and elected a new presidium, with the Bolsheviks taking the majority of seats. On November 8 word came to the capital that the Moscow garrison had come out against the Provisional Government, and that the Russian Twelfth Army supported the anti-government forces. At the same time the railway and telegraph workers came out against the Bolsheviks. On the night of the 8th, the Congress met again. Lenin proclaimed an end to the war with neither annexations nor indemnities and repudiation of secret treaties with the Allies. His proposal to abolish private ownership of land with no compensation passed with one dissenting vote.

Consolidating Power

In the next several days, the new government faced threats in Moscow, where Provisional Government forces won back the Kremlin, in Petrograd, where some officers seized the telephone exchange and held it through much of November 11, and from the postal, telephone, and bank workers who refused to work with the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks feared the return of Kerensky at the head of an army, but on the night of November 12-13, defeated his forces in a short battle at Tsarskoye Selo, the former imperial summer palace approximately 30km south of the capital. Kerensky escaped. In Moscow new government forces defeated those of the old on November 15.

In Petrograd and Moscow, the Bolsheviks had some security, and now, via telegram, announced recent events to the country and sought recognition abroad. Their position was not secure. Food and fuel were in short supply. Ukraine had established an independent government,and civil war had begun. The Baltic states and Finland demanded independence. In the south, Cossacks and disaffected generals including Kornilov joined under the banner of the Ataman of the Don Cossacks. Allied ambassadors would not work with the Bolshevik government. On November 26 Germany and Russia declared a ceasefire after agreeing to meet on December 2 in Brest-Litovsk to negotiate a peace agreement.

View of Moscow, the Kremlin and St. Basil

In this chaotic environment, Lenin implemented his program with decrees from the Soviet Council of People's Commissars, abolishing the stock market, private ownership of land, and rights of inheritance, and nationalizing banks, private industry, and most church lands. The western calendar, thirteen days ahead, replaced the old. The Bolshevik Cheka replaced the Okhrana, the Tsar's secret police, and began a reign of terror against the government's opponents.

Most of the government disagreed with Lenin's demand for an immediate peace, a demand that was only agreed to after Trotsky and the Russian delegation walked away from the peace negotiations, and Germany resumed its advance into Russia. Russia and the Central Powers finally signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918.

At the end of November, the elections for the Constituent Assembly were held, and the Bolsheviks won a quarter of the vote. Although the opening was postponed to January, delegates met on December 11 at the Tauride Palace after making their way through Bolshevik soldiers. The opening was set for January 18, 1918. On January 15, Lenin was injured in an assassination attempt. The Assembly met on January 18, the Palace packed with Red Guards, soldiers, and sailors from the Aurora and other ships. After hours of waiting, debating, the passage of a program that had much in common with that of the Bolsheviks, and in an increasingly disrupted atmosphere that threatened violence, the delegates were escorted from the building. On January 19, the Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets dissolved the Assembly.

To demonstrate the perfidy of the Tsarist government, the Bolsheviks released secret treaties made by Imperial Russia with its allies. Fearful of the Bolsheviks, the Allies encouraged anti-Bolshevik sentiment, and prepared a military response. British, French, American, and Japanese troops and supplies were landed in Murmansk and Vladivostock. In part fearful of an offensive by the Red Army, the German army maintained a large force in the east when it could have well used them for its 1918 offensives on the Western Front. Although a quarter of Russia's territory was occupied, there were few ethnic Russians in the land held by Germany. The Bolshevik, the Russian, Revolution would continue, the new government facing both external and internal enemies. The Russian Civil war had already begun.



Events contemporaneous with Russia's Bolshevik Revolution

Start Date End Date View
1915-06-23 1917-11-12 Battles of the Isonzo
1917-01-01 1917-12-09 Romania at War, 1917
1917-07-31 1917-11-06 Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres)
1917-10-21 1917-11-12 Battle of Caporetto