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The Bolsheviks take Power in 1917

Contrary to the views of the Minister of War, Kerensky, and the Provisional Government, Russia's army was still no match against the combined Austrian and German forces it faced on its territory in Eastern Europe — in the Ukraine. Russia's offensive began on July 1 with heavy artillery bombardment against the Austrians that blew a hole in their line. The Russians advanced for two or three days but they were stopped and began falling apart under a German counter offensive, the Russian soldiers soon refusing to leave their trenches and fight. The offensive's failure fueled anti-war sentiments in the capital, including soldiers who took to the streets. Their revolt was joined by 6,000 sailors from the nearby Kronstadt naval base. And they were joined by industrial workers. Lenin's Bolsheviks were among them, and the demonstrators repeated the Bolshevik slogan of "all power to the Soviets."

The Provisional Government found this an opportune time to announce evidence they had of Bolshevik dealings with the Germans, and this stunned those soldiers still interested in defending the motherland. Troops loyal to the government entered Petrograd and quelled the rising there. Numerous Bolsheviks were arrested, and some soldiers from Petrograd were sent to the front. The office of the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, was wrecked, and an order went out for the arrest of Lenin, who went into hiding.

A slow advance by the German army appeared to the Provisional Government as a threat to Petrograd. On July 21, Kerensky replaced Lvov as Prime Minister. By the 23rd the Russians had retreated 150 miles. Kerensky wanted to make a separate peace with Germany, but he yielded to objections from the United States, Britain and France.

The Germans were not interested in more territory to police on their Eastern Front, and in the weeks that followed Kerensky turned his attention to restoring order in the countryside — a reasonable endeavor for a Prime Minister, except that it needed more manpower than he was willing or able to apply. Then Kerensky accused one of his generals, Lvar Kornilov, of plotting a coup. Kerensky feared a general overthrowing the Russian revolution. In late August he charged Kornilov with treason. Kornilov, who had been loyal and somewhat progressive, was outraged by the charge and responded by making true Kerensky’s accusation: he called for the people of Russia to rally behind him to save the country from Kerensky and the Germans.

Some who believed that Kerensky was not using strong enough force to reestablish order sided with Kornilov. Prime Minister Kerensky sought as much help as he could, including from the well-organized and armed Bolsheviks. On September 4 his government released Bolsheviks from prison, and it released from prison an ally of the Bolsheviks, Leon Trotsky, a skilled writer and orator, a revolutionary who had been a leading figure in the popular rising in 1905.

Trotsky and the Bolsheviks armed all of those they could who were sympathetic to preventing a counter-revolution. Kerensky’s government arrested prominent generals for conspiring with Kornilov. Military officers abandoned any support they had had for the Provisional Government and Kerensky. Kornilov sent an army of Cossacks under General Krymov toward Petrograd. Workers and soldiers met Krymov’s army and talked many of them into abandoning their drive on Petrograd. Defeated, Kornilov and some other generals were arrested and jailed, and General Krymov killed himself with his own revolver.

By now, opinion in the Soviets had shifted to the Bolshevik position: favoring an immediate end of the war and taking governmental power away from the Provisional Government. The Petrograd Soviet elevated Leon Trotsky to chairman. On September 18 the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Moscow Soviet, and on September 23 they won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet.

It was time, Lenin believed, to take power on behalf of the Soviets. Bolshevik leaders around Lenin, namely Kamenev and Zinoviev, feared that such a move would be premature and a disaster. Trotsky supported Lenin. Lenin won enough of his fellow Bolshevik leaders to his side to swing Party organizers into action. Joining the Bolsheviks and Trotsky were their allies in the Soviets, an agrarian political party favoring social revolution known as the Left Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party. On October 19, the All-Russian conference of factory and shop committees resolved to support "All power to the Soviets."

The rising was scheduled to coincide with a meeting in Petrograd of the All Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Trotsky, as Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, was determined to make the coup appear as a defense of the revolution that overthrew the tsar and as a defense against an attempt by the Provisional Government to disperse the Congress of Soviets then in session. Lenin didn't see himself as leading a coup. He didn't see himself as a "putschist." As Lenin saw it, the Soviets were taking power that was legitimately theirs.

At one o’clock in the morning on November 7, armed revolutionary soldiers and sailors – the latter from the Kronstadt naval base – occupied without difficulty the city’s telegraph exchange. At 1:35 in the morning, revolutionaries occupied the post office. (Soldiers with Bolshevik sympathies tried to take control of the city’s biggest newspapers, but they found the newspaper offices guarded by armed men and failed.) At 5 a.m., a revolutionary force took control of the telephone exchange. At dawn, a Bolshevik force surrounded the state bank. At 10 in the morning, armed revolutionaries surrounded what had been the Tsar’s Winter Palace, which now held the offices of the Provisional Government — the biggest target for the revolutionaries. And the revolutionaries took control of Petrograd's train station.

Hardly any blood had been shed. Life in the city during the day was limping along as it had during previous days, as if the public was unaware of what was happening or didn't care. It is estimated that about 10,000 armed men in Petrograd were in support of the Bolsheviks and that the rest of the soldiers in Petrograd – perhaps 230,000 – were neutral. In Petrograd were also 15,000 or so military officers who had withdrawn from military affairs, largely for their own protection.

Kerensky was still away from Petrograd looking for military support. It was the first of the ten days that the US journalist John Reed referred to in his book titled "Ten Days that Shook the World." On that day the All Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies opened with the declaration that the Provisional Government was deposed and that all power now belonged to the Soviets. Moderate socialists (Mensheviks) at the Congress spoke against the coup, demanded negotiations with the Provisional Government and complained of the Bolsheviks failing to consult with other factions and parties in the Soviets. They were hooted down, and they walked out, with Trotsky announcing from the podium that they belonged to the garbage heap of history.

The following day, November 8, Lenin gave his keynote address to the Soviet delegates. "We shall now proceed to the construction of the socialist order," he stated, and he was wildly applauded. He announced that Russia was now out of the war, and delegates roared their approval. Lenin announced a land decree that suited his agrarian allies (the Left Social Revolutionaries) — a call for peasant proprietorship rather than socialization or communes. The Soviet delegates then offered resolutions that Lenin had a hand in creating. No compensation was to be given to landowners whose lands were confiscated. All private ownership of land was to be abolished in the sense that "wealthy" peasants, industrialists, churches and monasteries could no longer consider land, livestock or buildings as theirs by law. A resolution was put forward that defended "soldier’s rights" and enforced "complete democratization of the army." Industry was put under "workers' control." It was decreed that necessary means were to be taken to supply bread to the cities and articles of necessity to the villages. All local power was to be transferred to Workers’ and Peasants’ Soviets, and these Soviets were to be responsible for enforcing the decisions made by the delegates to the Congress of Soviets. Anti-Jewish pogroms or incidents were declared illegal. And all nationalities that had been a part of the Tsar's empire (Ukrainians, Poles, et cetera) were to enjoy self-determination. There was also the announcement that soldiers in the trenches should be "watchful and steadfast." And nations still at war were called upon to make peace. With a verbal attack on imperialism there was a call on nations to abolish secret diplomacy, a promise that the Soviet government would conduct all negotiations in the light of day before the people and would publish all of the secret treaties to which Russia had been a party. The Congress voted on these declarations and passed them unanimously. Lenin assured the delegates that democracy would reign. And he said that all decisions would be subject to the approval or modification by the Constituent Assembly that was scheduled to open in a few weeks.

The Congress of Soviets remained in session four more days, during which the eight-hour work-day was decreed. And it was decreed that all newspapers hostile to the revolution would be closed – because, it was said, newspapers were under the control of wealthy persons who should be prevented from "poisoning and confusing" the minds of the masses. Meanwhile, on November 9, Moscow had come under the control of its Soviet, and revolutionaries were beginning to take power in the name of the Soviets in other Russian cities.

Kerensky, at the city of Pskov (about 10 miles or 160 kilometers southeast of Petrograd) rallied troops to retake the capital. In the capital his force was joined by young cadets from military schools led by the Committee for Salvation of Motherland and Revolution, He appointed Pyotr Krasnov to lead this army. It was to be called the Junker Mutiny. Kerensky's force was defeated on November 13th just south of the capital. It was to be called the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising. Kransnov was taken prisoner. Kerensky escaped, spent a few weeks in hiding and then fled Russia, eventually arriving in France. When Germany invaded France in 1940 he would move to the United States, where he would be hired by Stanford Univerity's Hoover Institution.

On November 23, the Petrograd Soviet decreed that all "class distinctions, class privileges and class limitations, class organizations and institutions, as well as all civil ranks" were abolished. And it was decreed that the property of the nobility was to be confiscated. Where Soviets were in control, especially in Petrograd, the wealthy were giving up space in their homes to members of the "working class," and moving into their attics or basements.

November 25 was the day that had been scheduled for the election of delegates to the Constituent Assembly. Lenin favored postponing these elections. He was opposed by comrades who observed that the Bolsheviks had often attacked the Provisional Government for its postponement of these elections, and they argued that hope for the elections was too widespread to ignore and that their credibility had to be maintained. Some Bolsheviks, moreover, were looking forward to the Constituent Assembly as a means of legitimizing their revolution. Elections for seats in the Constituent Assembly were held, and for the Bolsheviks it was an embarrassment. Bolsheviks won only 25 percent of the vote. With most Russians being peasants the political party that won the majority of seats were the peasant's party allied with the Bolsheviks, the Left Social Revolutionaries. The majority of the delegates elected to the Constituent Assembly appeared to be sympathetic with socialism but not identical with Bolshevik thinking. The Constituent Assembly was scheduled to open on December 11.The Constituent Assembly was scheduled to open on December 11, but the Bolsheviks postponed the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly to January.

As the end of the year 1917 approached and Lenin was directing Russia's (and the Revolution's) affairs of state, he was swamped by practical considerations. He had to take action against managers who were sabotaging what had been their factories. He faced a strike by teachers, engineers and other white-collar workers. He stopped the vengeance of factory workers putting engineers and other skilled white-collar men to work cleaning latrines. For the time being he saw the need for his party's power as a "vanguard" for the working class. Rather than leave matters to the spontaneity of the masses, a decree was issued establishing a Supreme Economic Council to manage the entire economy. In Russia's cities, meanwhile, hunger worsened. Grain supplies had dropped to new lows, so Lenin sent armed detachments of workers and poor peasants to confiscate food that peasants had stored, and armed clashes occurred between resisting peasants and the requisition teams.

Lenin had foreseen the state and its prohibitions ultimately disappearing, or withering away. But for the time being he was afraid of counter-revolution and sabotage. On December 20 the Bolsheviks created a commission to be known by its acronym, CHEKA (the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage). To combat "counter-revolution" in the Ukraine and bring the Ukraine into the Soviet camp, the Bolsheviks mobilized another army.

In Petrograd on 18 January 1918, Russia's long-awaited, popularly elected Constituent Assembly was scheduled to convene. In the morning a large crowd gathered in support of the Assembly. Soldiers loyal to the Soviet government (Bolsheviks and their Left Socialist-Revolutionary Party allies, dispersed the crowd. The Assembly convened in the afternoon, and the Bolsheviks demanded recognition of Soviet government's authority. This was not accepted by the majority. The Bolshevik delegates and their Left Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) allies walked out. The next day, militiamen with bayonets loyal to the Soviet government dispersed the Assembly. Lenin and his allies described the Assembly as a "bourgeois" institution and that by abolishing the Assembly the Bolsheviks were fulfilling their goal of "All power to the Soviets." Among those not accepting this argument, opposition to the Bolsheviks increased.

CONTINUE READING: Russians and Civil War in 1918

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.