Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, November 6, 2017

100 Years Ago: The October Revolution in Russia Begins

In 1917 the Great War and a dedicated band of professional revolutionaries destroyed the Romanov dynasty and the Russian state. Discontent with the prosecution of the war led to the tsar's abdication, and the Provisional Government that succeeded him tried the impossible—continuing the war with a demoralized army and a population longing for peace at almost any cost. In its eight-month history, the Provisional Government was repeatedly reorganized and suffered a series of debilitating crises, mostly self-inflicted. 

Leon Trotsky, Key Strategist of the Coup

On 6–8 November (October 24–26, O.S.) the Bolsheviks, well prepared and brilliantly led by Leon Trotsky, perfectly executed a coup d'éat, occupying government buildings, bridges, telegraph stations, and other strategic points with only a thousand Red Guards, the Soviets' paramilitary forces, actively involved. Kerensky's government simply dissolved as his ministers were arrested in their offices. The centerpiece of the coup, destined to be its historical symbol, was the capture of the Winter Palace, completed at 2 a.m. on 26 October. 

Red Guards of Petrograd's Vulkan Factory

However, the capture of the Winter Palace was simply "frosting on the cake." The Bolsheviks had de facto taken the reins of power on the first day of the action using small squads of Red Guards, radicalized soldiers and sailors, and technical specialists. The leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, had set off the end game when, out of desperation, he sanctioned the closure of the Bolshevik printing presses including Pravda and Izvestiya and sent word to military units in Reval (now Tallinn), Estonia, the closest reliable forces, to march on the capital. The revolution evolved just as Trotsky desired and prepared his forces. His small squads were ordered to capture control of Petrograd—its main centers of communication and infrastructure, including roads, bridges, the Post Office, and so on. Meanwhile, the Estonian Soviets ensured that the soldiers that Kerensky summoned remained in their barracks. The crew of the cruiser Aurora, fully committed to the revolution, was called on for support and eventually anchored menacingly opposite the Winter Palace, headquarters of the Provisional Government.  Trotsky's forces proceeded to take control the capital and surround the now impotent Provisional Government.  Almost no one realized the coup had decisively succeeded. 

Minor Damage at the Winter Palace, Afterward

Remarkably, there was almost no blood spilled in the takeover. On the evening of 8 November, Lenin was able to announce to the Congress of Soviets: "We shall now take up the formation of the socialist state..." The Congress immediately approved the formation of a new government composed mainly of Bolshevik commissars. The Bolsheviks now controlled the government of Russia but would require several more years to spread their totalitarian regime across the entire nation.


  1. One might amend the last sentence to say "... require several years of very bloody civil war to spread..."

  2. And within just a few weeks a member of the Duma arose in the chamber and complained bitterly that there were already political executions taking place. The die was cast.

  3. Crises indeed. The Provisional Government fueled the uprising by the poorly executed disaster of the Kerensky Offensive in the summer. This catastrophe proved to the Bolsheviks that the army was no longer a threat.

  4. One of the most important events of the 20th century.

    Do any books on this published in 2017 stand out to anyone here? I'm looking forward to China Mieville's account.

  5. I just finished Laura Engelstein's book Russia in Flames and wrote a review on it which will be published here in mid-Dec. I enjoyed the work immensely. Covers 1914-1921 with special emphasis to Bolshevik coup détat and Civil War proceedings. Cheers