THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION.
In 1917 the First World War had already been raging for three years. The world was divided into two hostile camps. They were the Central Powers and the Allies. The Central Powers were Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The Allies included the Russian Empire, France, the United Kingdom, Serbia, Japan, Italy and then the United States joined the Allies. Because most of Africa and Asia were colonies of European countries this meant that these continents were also in the war.
Russia was a virtual dictatorship under the Tsar. The Duma (parliament) was elected but it could only express an opinion. The voting system was openly weighted towards the affluent.
The Russian Empire had suffered enormously. Over two million Russian soldiers had been killed. Russian industry was producing enough weapons but the transport system was not bringing sufficient weapons and food to the front. In the cities there were grave shortages of food and fuel. People queued for hours to get bread and coal. They grumbled about their problems.
In the non-Russian parts of the empire there were separatist rebellions. In 1916 there was a nationalist rebellion in Kazakhstan. Many Kazakhs wanted independence. They resented the government’s bid to conscript them into the Russian Army. Some Kazakhs viewed the Russian Army as an army of occupation. Russia stressed that Christianity was central to its identity. It was therefore very hard for a Muslim to feel Russian. Not many Kazakhs spoke Russian back then. One of Russia’s foes was the Ottoman Empire. WHy should Kazakhs fight against their co-religionists in the Ottoman Empire? The Turks had some linguistic and cultural similarity with the Kazakhs. Most of the Russian troops were fighting in Europe. This meant that Russia lost control of most of Kazakhstan.
Lenin was a Marxist theorist. He was the leader of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were a faction of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party. This party had been banned under the Tsar. He had been exiled to Siberia in his youth. Since 1900 he had lived outside Russia. He briefly lived in London and then he moved to Switzerland. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (known as Lenin) wrote in little known Marxist newspapers. Lenin was virtually unheard of in Russia. Lenin believed that national identity was nonsense. He said he wanted to liberate the working class in all nations. He wanted workers to unite and fight against the boss class which exploited them. Lenin thought that the First World War was totally immoral. He claimed that both sides were evil. It was an imperialist war – prideful empires fought for more territory and more markets. The wealthy grew even richer while proletarians were slaughtered in their millions just to increase the profits of a few capitalists.
In February 1917 there had been a revolution in Russia. Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown. He had never been popular but his mismanagement of the war had led to him being widely reviled. The Tsar and his family were held prisoner and transferred to Yekaterinaburg. The monarchy was abolished. A republic was established and many political parties were allowed. Every adult was allowed to vote and there was free speech. The Provisional maintained the capitalist system but said they planned to share wealth more equally in future. The Prime Minister was Prince Lvov – no relation to the Romanovs. Prince Lvov led the Constitutional Democrats Party. After a few months Prince Lvov was replaced as Prime Minister by Alexander Kerensky. He was a member of the Social Revolutionary Party. The Provisional Government declared that it would continue to fight the war. This was ”revolutionary defence”. Germany had occupied a lot of Russian land. The Provisional Government simply wanted its land back. Once the lost land was recovered Russia would stop fighting – if Germany was willing to make peace on those terms.
The war was extremely costly in terms of lives and money. Russia could hardly sustain the war. The Western Allies were very keen to keep Russia in the war. They feared that if Russia pulled out of the war then Germany would defeat them (the Western Allies).
Lenin detested the German Government. Germany was more or less a military dictatorship under the Kaiser. Lenin believed that Germany’s system was wicked to the German working class who were mistreated by the bosses. Lenin was determined to withdraw Russia from the war which he believed was idiotic and morally repugnant. The German Government knew that Lenin was adamant that Russia should stop fighting. They also knew that Lenin hated them as much as he did his own government but nevertheless they saw how Lenin could be useful to him. Lenin and the German Government agreed that he would return to Russia and be funded by them. He was put in a sealed train and allowed to cross German territory to go home. Lenin returned to Russia in March 1917.
Lenin was met by some Bolsheviks at Finland Station in Petrograd (now called St Petersburg). Lenin immediately gave a rousing speech about how Russia was immediately cease fighting. His slogan was ”Peace, Bread, Land!” Most people were utterly sick of the war. It had cause untold suffering and appeared to be unwinnable.
The Provisional Government believed in free speech. However, they grew anxious about the Bolsheviks’ anti-war agitation. The Bolsheviks had been a tiny party at the time of the February Revolution. The Bolshevik Party grew very rapidly especially in cities among factory workers, soldiers, sailors, transport workers and servants. Soldiers started to desert because they were convinced by Bolshevik anti-war rhetoric.
In April 1917 Lenin published the April Theses. These were his thoughts about why Russia ought to make peace. His opinions were very attractive. Lenin suddenly became famous. He published a newspaper called Pravda.
The Bolsheviks attempted a revolution in the summer of 1917. They did not have enough support. The Provisional Government defeated them and Lenin fled to Finland.
In October 1917 the situation had deteriorated for the Provisional Government. Russian offensives had been beaten back by the Central Powers. Desertions in the army had made the military situation untenable. The paucity of food and firewood in the cities was severe. The war was killing civilians in huge numbers. The Provisional Government had become very unpopular. Tsarists were even plotting a comeback. The Bolsheviks decided it was the moment to strike.
Many soldiers and sailors – even those still serving in the military – had become Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks formed a secret Revolutionary Military Committee. The Bolsheviks carefully planned their revolution. Then they struck..
The Battleship Aurora was under Bolshevik control. In the dead of night the Aurora fired on the Winter Palace. That was the signal for Bolshevik troops to storm the Winter Palace. In fact the Winter Palace was very lightly defended. It was held by some cadets and some women soldiers. Not a single person was killed in the storming of the Winter Palace.
The Bolsheviks seized several key installations around St Petersburg. These included the telephone exchange, banks, railway stations and ammunition dumps. They encountered some resistance. Dozens of people were killed. Bearing in mind this was the capital city the fighting was very small scale. Almost every pro-government soldier was at the front facing the Germans.
Alexander Kerensky fled in a vehicle provided by the US Embassy. SOme other government ministers were arrested.
The Bolsheviks set up their headquarters in the SMolny Institute. This was formerly a finishing school.
We call this event the October Revolution. According the the New Style Calendar it began on 5 November. Russia used the Old Style Calendar until 1918. So by the Russian calendar of that time this revolution occurred in October. It is always known as the October Revolution.
Bolsheviks also seized control of Moscow. There they faced serious opposition. It took weeks of heavy fighting before the Bolsheviks won there. The Bolsheviks also took over several other major cities.
The Bolsheviks said that Russia would be a socialist state. They did not ban other political parties at that time. Elections scheduled for November 1918 went ahead. These were rather disrupted owing to the fighting. The Bolsheviks scored 25% of the vote but the Social Revolutionaries won 40% of the vote. The Duma met in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks closed the Duma after one day.
The Bolsheviks established a soviet of people’s commissars. The chairman of the soviet of people’s commissars was Lenin. This was equivalent of being Prime Minister. Other countries would say ”government minister”/ Bolsheviks said that was a bourgeois term so they used the words ”people’s commissar” as in ”people’s commissar for foreign affairs, people’s commissar for health, people’s commissar for war”’. Other countries talked about the cabinet – as in group of the top government minister. In Bolshevik Russia this was called the soviet of people’s commissars.
Lenin said he wanted the non Russian sections of the Russian Empire to remain united with Russia but if these countries wished to declared independence then they would be allowed to separate. Most non-Russian nations declared independence. A couple of years later Lenin changed his mind and conquered them.
The October Revolution was a very significant moment. It established the first communist government.
In the USSR this event was called ‘The Great Socialist October Revolution.’