So, I’ve been reading hints about this for years, but after reading John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World, I now see for sure that one cannot understand why the Russian Revolution of 1917 took the form it did unless one has studied the Russian Revolution of 1905. As some consider World War II a bloody continuation of World War I in spite of the nearly two decades interceding, one could even more justifiably consider the 1917 Revolution as the continuation of the 1905 Revolution in Russia.
Both Revolutions occurred at times when the Russian people were suffering from the deprivations and low morale of a badly going war. In 1905, it was Russia’s humiliating loss to the Japanese– the first Western nation in modern times to be defeated by an Asian power. In 1917, Russia was deeply engaged in World War One, with a large amount of Russian blood being spilt on the frontlines. And Russia was still being led by Tsar Nicholas II, and there was still the Duma, a fairly weak national parliament.
The Revolution of 1917 began with some food riots in Petrograd while Tsar Nicholas was away at war headquarters. There was no great agenda, just frustration and hunger. The food rioters were soon joined by army reservists who really, really didn’t want to be sent off to the front to die for their Tsar. The situation became so unhappily intense, that the Duma begged the Tsar to abdicate, which Nicholas actually did. By sheer inertia, the Russian state lumbered on, even staying in the War, with a sort of zombie bureaucracy continuing to go through the motions of government-work. Trotsky, commenting on the vacuum of power at the top, said that after the abdication of the Tsar, “power fell into the street.”
THE FIRST LINK between the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions I want to mention is the resurrection of the 1905 Revolutionary movement known as the Red Guards. The Red Guards, which sprang back to life during the early days of 1917 Revolution, were basically Russian workers who spontaneously took up arms and began to patrol their own neighborhoods to provide what order and safety they could for their families and neighbors.
Reed tells us that Petrograd was “the capital and heart of the insurrection” during the Revolution of 1917. Whoever determined events in Petrograd, determined events for the whole of Russia and its empire.
THE SECOND LINK between 1917 and 1905 is the Soviet, or local governing council. In the early days of the Revolution, Petrograders formed a version of a Soviet composed of representatives drawn from two groups of people, one representing the interests of the workers, the other representing the soldiers. The members of the Soviets are often referred to as the people’s “deputies.”
Reed writes that the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet were moderate socialists who hoped to achieve reform within the bounds of the law. Instead of attempting to seize power, they implored the Duma to take over the government, which the Duma agreed to do, establishing the Provisional Government. When the first Bolsheviks (one of several communist factions operating in Russia), returned from Siberia after the commencement of the Revolution (Stalin being among their number by the way), they at first accepted the authority of the Provisional Government and seemed fine with the idea that Russia would naturally NOT pull out of the Great War just because of a little domestic dispute.
Other Soviets besides the Petrograd one also sprang into existence when Revolution returned in 1917.
Lenin was in Switzerland when the 1917 Revolution broke-out. He purportedly struck a deal with the Germans– if the Germans would transport Lenin and about 30 revolutionaries by train across Germany and into Russia, Lenin would do what he could to take Russia out of the war. Rumors of Lenin’s coziness with the Germans returned with him practically on the train, and he was soon accused of being a German agent. Forced into hiding,he eventually wound up in Finland, which was then an autonomous province of the Russian Empire.
The communist Trotsky, who had been in America, also returned to Russia in this period, and for the first time joined the Bolshevik Party.
The Bolshevik faction of Russian communists smartly decided that the best path to power was not to immediately attempt to infiltrate the Provisional Government, but to co-opt the Soviets.
I get the impression that as Russia turned more and more chaotic during the Revolutionary year of 1917, that the Soviet councils shined as obvious beacons of energy and relative order and at-least-minimal authority, so it probably didn’t take a genius to determine that, with the national government in tatters, the best fulcrum of power to occupy would be the local councils spontaneously emerging from the mayhem. “All power to the Soviets!” became the battle-cry of the Bolshevik Party.
When the Provisional Government decided that it was time for the 60,000 soldiers who had been garrisoned at Petrograd to rotate back to the Front, the Petrograd Garrison balked. And who can blame them? During World War One, the Front had proven little more than an outdoor slaughterhouse for Russian men. Plus, there were suspicions, understandably, that the Provisional Government was just trying to get rid of the Petrograd Garrison so that Petrograd– which had been acting largely autonomously since the onset of the Revolution– could be brought under the control.
In the end, the Petrograd soldiers responded to the Provisional Government with a message stating that “the Petrograd Garrison no longer recognizes the Provisional Government,” and that the soldiers would “obey only the orders of the Petrograd Soviet.” This was manna from heaven for the Bolsheviks. Now the Petrograd Soviet not only had the people’s sympathies and support– but it had an army. And the Bolsheviks– though they may have stood far from the reigns of power when it came to the national bureaucracy (which, we will see, actually contained elements quite hostile to the Bolsheviks), they stood a fighting chance of having a strong voice in the Soviet of the most radical city in Russia.
The head of the Provisional Government, Kerensky, did not approve of the revolutionary zeal running amuck in Petrograd. So he found a conservative military strongman, General Kornilov, and invited him to come to Petrograd to restore order. However, General Kornilov –supported by his division of ultra-loyal Tekhintsi tribesmen from the Muslim lands of Central Asia– had more in mind than merely subduing the riotous Petrograders… He planned to destroy the Provisional Government and make himself military dictator of all of Russia. When Kerensky discovered Kornilov’s real intentions, he immediately reversed strategy and appealed to the workers for assistance and began releasing those revolutionary loudmouths he had once kept imprisoned– a not-so-small population which included numerous Bolsheviks. More good news for Lenin, Trotsky, and company. General Kornilov was successfully thwarted and expelled (thank you Petrograd Garrison! We were never REALLY going to send you away!)
But the friction between the Provisional Government and the revolutionary elements of Petrograd was just getting started. On the pretext that Petrograd was in danger from the German navy, the Provisional Government decided that Petrograd must be evacuated, with the city’s munitions to be parcelled out across Russia.
Instantly, the Bolsheviks began accusing the Provisional Government of attempting to weaken the Revolution. “In the face of a storm of popular disapproval,” writes Reed, “the plan of evacuation was repudiated.”
Instead, the Provisional Government opted to liquidate the more troublesome Revolutionary groups operating in Petrograd. This is not such good news for the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks responded by summoning an All-Russian Soviet to be held at Petrograd. The suggestion that the Soviets would outright take-over of the governing of the nation now began to get serious consideration. The Provisional Government, understandably, then resolved to arrest the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet and to suppress the Bolshevik press, including the famous journal, Pravda, whose offices were accordingly occupied.
The Bolsheviks seized the moment and, after another wave of violent uprising, found themselves in power in Petrograd.
THE THIRD LINK between the 1917 and 1905 Revolutions is the Union Of Unions. This great combination of labor unions had been established during that earlier revolution by liberals who were able to combine into one powerful group many of the unions representing the more elite or “professional” workers of Russia, such as doctors and lawyers and such.
Once the Bolsheviks had recovered from their down-days as prisoners and exiles and fought their way into the dominant power-position in Petrograd, they began their take-over of the national government apparatus. However, they met with strong resistance from the 1917 version of the Union of Unions. These professionals –many working in, or with, the government– most definitely did not want their country falling from the hands of an absolute monarch into the hands of a bunch of communists.
When the ascendant Bolsheviks began giving orders to the bureaucrats still attached to what was left of national government, the Union Of Unions went on strike and attempted to resist “every move of the Bolsheviks to take over the government apparatus.” Reed says that “the strike of the Government employees was well organized” and it was “financed by the banks and commercial establishments”— two groups naturally opposed to the communist agenda of the Bolsheviks.
“The private banks remained stubbornly closed, with a back door open for speculators,” writes Reed. “When Bolshevik Commissars entered, the clerks left, secreting the books and removing the funds.”
Also during this time, the Russian Army was having conniptions attempting to figure-out who they were supposed to take orders from. However, once Lenin announced that, as far as the Soviets were concerned, the Great War was over, and it was time to come home and get our own house in order– I think that helped the soldiers make up their minds about whom they would listen to. Lenin made enough sense to them when he declared that Russia would not continue bleeding so that the imperialists powers could “divide among themselves the weak and conquered nationalities” and perpetrate “the greatest possible crime against humanity.” Amen, brother! We’re coming home!
From there, the 1917 Russian Revolution takes its famous– or infamous– course… abolishing private land ownership and putting-down (or rather, postponing for about 70 years) the multiple, embryonic nationalist movements beginning to stir in countries such as: Poland, Finland, Ukraine, Siberia, White Russia, and the Caucasus… Even the Cossacks wanted autonomy.
The Allied governments in the West had attempted to block the Russian Revolution, largely because they didn’t want to lose the great Russian Army. Attempting to create counter-revolutionay centers, Reed writes that the West immediately recognized the “independence” of Ukraine and Finland, and loaned them huge sums of money. But Lenin and the Bolsheviks proved stronger.
Trotsky claimed during these heady days that what the Russian revolutionaries wanted to ultimately create was a sort of United States Of Europe, with national frontiers becoming porous to people and goods. Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks truly believed that Russia’s revolution was to be the first in a worldwide series of revolutions which would overthrow the nationalistic, capitalistic global regime. It didn’t happen.
I think one of the most unfortunate events in Russian (and world) history was the death of Lenin, from illness, only a few years after the Bolsheviks had seized power. Reed calls Lenin a “strange” leader in world history, one who was “a leader purely by virtue of intellect.” I’m not sure the Russians would have been happy under a long Lenin rule (he had his dark side), but they certainly would have been happier than under Stalin’s long, cruel tyranny.
Don’t get me wrong, in general I think the take-over of Russia by communist extremists was a multi-national catastrophe no matter who manned the helm, but at least Lenin was intelligent and pragmatic. He had already shown signs that he was willing to put practicalities above idealistic considerations. If I had to guess, I would say that a Russia WITH a long-reigning Lenin would have been likely to follow a gradual evolution toward a mixed economy somewhat along the lines of Post-Mao China.
I would like to end this post with a quotation from a hymn popular in Russia during the Revolutionary Era, “The Funeral March“…
“You fell in the fatal fight
for the liberty of the people, for the honor of the people.
You gave up your lives and everything dear to you.
You suffered in horrible prisons.
You went to exile in chains […]
Without a word you carried your chains
because you could not ignore your suffering brothers,
because you believed that justice is stronger than the sword […]
The time will come when your surrendered life will count.
That time is near. When tyranny falls, the people will rise, great and free.
Farewell brothers, you chose a noble path.
At your grave we swear to fight,
to work for freedom and the people’s happiness.”