Chapter 60: The October Revolution: Communism in Russia

The two uprisings in Imperial Russia, in March and October 1917, are together known as the Russian Revolution. After this revolution, the super power known as the Soviet Union was to be created: it would play a major role in world politics for just over 70 years before collapsing into itself, racked not only by Communism's inherent economic contradictions, but also destroyed by ethnic and racial conflict. The two revolutions are known as the February Revolution and October Revolution by name: both had tumultuous effects on 20th Century history.

Mounting Crises

The 1917 revolutions were not however the first attempts to overthrow the Tsar: the 1825 revolt against Tsar Nicholas 1 and the 1905 revolution, which ended in the Bloody Sunday Massacres in St. Petersburg, were evidence of a dissatisfaction with the Russian state going back decades.

Imperialist Russia was one of the original belligerents in the First World War: by 1917 however, the country had been defeated in more major battles than it had won. The country was ill equipped to fight a modern war: the underdeveloped and mismanaged economy, combined with centuries of autocratic Tsarist rule, created conditions ripe for revolution.

Above: The Russian Duma, or parliament, sits in 1915. The Tsar ignored constant advice from the Duma advising him of serious trouble brewing.

 Despite some limited reforms being introduced, which saw a highly restricted Duma, or parliament, coming into being, the Tsar retained virtual absolute power. Warnings issued to him, even by the upper class dominated Duma, were ignored.

Food shortages were common: Russian troops were the worst supplied of the war; often going for long periods without food or basic clothing, yet expected to fight for a system from which they had long since been alienated. By 1917, serious famine threatened much of Russia and the pro-reform parties in the Duma had a majority. All the signs were there that trouble was ahead: all were ignored.

The February Revolution

The deprivations of the war finally proved too much. By February 1917, large crowds had started to form daily demonstrations in Petrograd (now called St. Petersburg) protesting against the food shortages, against the undemocratic Tsar and against the war.

The Duma, while not leading the protest, was overtly sympathetic to the demands of the workers, with the largest party in the Duma being the moderate pro-reformist Socialist Workers Party.

On 23 February, some 90,000 people gathered for one of the biggest demonstrations yet: the principle demand of that protest was bread - the simplicity of the demand an indication of how desperate things had become. Despite police and troops being called in to disperse the crowd, the masses remained unmoved: most soldiers were in any event sympathetic with the crowd.

The next day, 24 February, tensions had risen visibly: half of all Petrograd turned out on strike: hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets, calling for an end to the Tsar's rule and for an end to the war which they saw as the Tsar's personal war - a not wholly inaccurate interpretation. By 25 February, the whole city had been engulfed in a strike: as the nation's capital, it brought the entire administration of the country and of the war to a halt.

Above: Tsar Nicholas, his wife and one of his children. All were to be murdered by the Communists once the latter party had seized complete power.

Then the strike turned violent: several police stations were seized by bands of armed strikers and burned down; and universal suffrage elections to the first workers councils (called Soviets) were held in the factories in Petrograd. The pro-reform Socialist Workers Party easily won the majority votes in these Soviets - which quickly became the de facto local government bodies, appropriating many duties and responsibilities to themselves that were normally the preserve of the Tsarist government.

The Army Mutinies

By 26 February, the Tsar called out the Russian army in Petrograd to suppress the uprising: at first there were some violent clashes, but soon the troops mutinied and refused to fire on the workers: the first line of defense for the old order had collapsed under a wave of disloyalty caused by the Tsar's own short sightedness.

The Tsar then dissolved the pro-reform Duma: this body obeyed but informally reassembled and elected a provisional cabinet to run the state: by 27 February, there was virtually nothing left of the Tsar's administration and the informal Duma was the de facto government.

Then the army mutinied on a grand scale: in Petrograd, 150,000 soldiers joined the revolution in one go: together with the armed workers, the capital was completely seized and the remains of the Imperialist government driven out. The revolution had claimed some 1,500 lives up until that stage.


Despite the Petrograd Soviets being firmly pro-reform, they were not dominated by the Communists. Together they elected an overall Soviet for Petrograd, and together with the Duma formed what was in reality a fairly moderate socialist administration whose first priority was to organize food supplies and the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who had been jailed by the Tsarist government.

Both the Duma and the Soviet in Petrograd also believed in continuing the war against Germany: despite the end of the war being a demand specifically made by the crowds who had driven the Tsarist government out of the capital.


Vladimir Illyich Ulynaov, who later adopted the name of Lenin, was born in 1870 and had become a convinced revolutionary by the age of 17, when his brother had been executed for his part in a plot to assassinate the Tsar.

By then already a follower of Karl Marx, who in 1848 had published the Communist Manifesto in Germany and who had thereby formalized the ideology of Communism, Lenin was exiled to Siberia by the Tsarist police for three years from 1887 to 1890.

On his release, he fled to Western Europe and built up the radical wing of the Russian Communist Party, mainly through the publication of his famous newspaper "Iskra" (the Spark) from Switzerland. Lenin returned briefly to Russia in 1905 to take part in the abortive revolution of that year: When it failed and was suppressed, he fled once more into exile.

Above: Lenin addresses a meeting - to his left, Leon Trotsky, the principal organizer of the Communist Revolution and the real brains behind the creation of the Soviet Union.

 The February revolution of 1917 caught Lenin unprepared: he was still in Switzerland when it broke out. He immediately made an offer to the German government: if they would give him safe passage to Russia, he would endeavor to take Russia out of the war. The Germans agreed to this plan, and along with a tight group of selected revolutionaries, Lenin was put across the Russian border by the Germans in a secret operation which involved the Communists hiding in a railway truck. Lenin finally arrived in Petrograd in April 1917, with his small but tough and trained hard core group of revolutionaries.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks

Upon Lenin's return, the almost dormant Communist Party was reactivated and sprang into life: Lenin demanded of the Petrograd Soviet that they seize land, distribute it to the peasantry; and end the war. Lenin's Communists, who had been created out of a split at the 1903 Russian Socialist Workers' Party conference (at the time of the split, Lenin had carried the majority of party delegates with him - they became known as the "Bolshevists", or "majority", while the remainder were known as the "Mensheviks", or "minority". These names did not however reflect their support amongst the population: the Mensheviks, or moderate Socialists, had the most support, as the few elections that were held in 1917, proved beyond doubt.) Thus it was that Lenin's demands fell onto Menshevik ears in the Petrograd Soviet and were ignored.

The Tsar Abdicates

Before Lenin had arrived, the Soviet in Petrograd had already recognized the Duma as the legitimate government of Russia: dominated by Mensheviks, the Duma formally took over the administration of the country as a whole on 28 February. The Tsar, realizing that the game was up, formally abdicated on 2 March 1917.

The Revolution Spreads

Using the Petrograd revolution as a model, similar uprisings then occurred throughout Russia: in each case workers' committees, or Soviets, were created in tandem with civil authorities created by the Duma. In virtually all cases, the Soviets were dominated by Mensheviks and all held themselves subservient to the central Menshevik government.

The provisional government then disbanded the Tsarist police, repealed all limitations on freedom of opinion, press, and association, and repealed all laws which discriminated against Jews. Despite all these moves, the basic structure of the society remained unaltered: this was exemplified by the determination to continue the war at all costs.

Slowly the workers' Soviets began to become more radical, and it was not long before the subservience which had been the characteristic of the first Soviets began to change. After a few months it became clear that the Duma government only existed because the Soviets tolerated it: all the actual infrastructure of the state was controlled by the workers' committees, and the Duma government exercised power in name only.

Before Lenin's return from exile in April, Bolshevik policy had been formulated by its internal leaders, Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, the latter of whom favored conditional support of the Duma, or Provisional Government, and were in the process of making a political bloc with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries.

Lenin's return to Russia in April changed that: he was implacably opposed to co-operation with the Menshevik government and immediately redirected the Bolsheviks into breaking with the Menshevik government and towards establishing control of the Soviets. In this way, Lenin wanted to capture power in the country as a whole, and not to share it with the Mensheviks or others.

Leon Trotsky Returns

Then, Lenin's greatest organizer, and the man who can quite rightly be called the brains behind the Bolshevik revolution, Leon Trotsky, arrived back in Russia from America where he had been in exile since escaping from a Tsarist prison following his arrest during the abortive 1905 revolution.

Trotsky was to lead the Bolshevik revolution, and unquestionably without him it would never have occurred. Trotsky's arrival in May 1917 in Russia, accompanied by a large number of international Communists, greatly strengthened Lenin in his struggle with the Mensheviks.

This was primarily because Trotsky was a brilliant organizer, but also because he brought with him a considerable amount of money from Jewish sympathizers in the United States, particularly from the banker Jacob Schiff of the firm Kuhn Loeb & Co. - the latent anti-Semitism of successive Tsarist governments had made the revolutionary movement a cause celebre amongst Western Jews.

The Soviets Flex their Muscle

In April, the first serious confrontation between the Duma government and the Petrograd Soviet occurred: in that month, the Duma government issued a pronouncement to the Western Allied powers stating that it would continue the war with Germany and that it fully intended to annex territories from the defeated Central Powers at the conclusion of the war.

This pronouncement flew directly in the face of the Petrograd Soviet's political position on the war: the month before, in March, it had issued a proclamation calling for the end of the war and the creation of peace without annexations and reparations.

The Duma government's announcement immediately led to demonstrations in the streets of Petrograd: the unwillingness of the Russian masses to continue with the war which had already killed over a million and a half Russians had been completely underestimated. The Petrograd Soviet then assumed sole control in the capital city: the Duma government was summarily ejected and the entire army garrison in Petrograd obeyed the orders given to it by the Soviet. This marked a sea change: although the Bolsheviks were still a minority, their policy had in effect been endorsed by the leading Soviet in the country.

First Congress of Soviets

In June 1917, the Soviets from around the country gathered in Petrograd for the first all-Russian Congress of Soviets. It was still heavily dominated by Mensheviks and Duma government supporters: but cracks were beginning to appear.

The Duma government had failed to address the major issues facing the country: the lack of food, inflation and continued reverses on the war front created ever deepening crises for the government. The Duma government also had not yet held proper democratic elections, arguing that it was not possible to do so while so much of the country was still under German occupation.

Then the Congress of Soviets declared itself in favor of state monopolies of the bread industry and other essential items, the first socialist reform that had actually been proposed. The Duma government turned this request down, arguing that the first issue to be resolved was winning the war, and that all other things would be addressed afterwards. With policy pronouncements such as this, the Duma government was, without realizing it, continually alienating the Soviets, upon whom it depended to stay in power.

Russian Army Discipline Cracks

Then the Menshevik Minister of War in the Duma government, Alexander Kerensky, compounded the crisis by launching a major Russian offensive on 16 June 1917: it was an utter failure and discipline in the Russian army collapsed. Millions of soldiers deserted and flooded back into the Russian cities to escape the fighting at the front. Alienated, hungry and angry, they were ideal revolutionary material and the Bolsheviks were able to engage in mass recruiting led by the extremely able Trotsky.

The July Uprising

News of the defeat at the front arrived while the Congress of Soviets was still in session: under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet the congress then issued a demand calling for the abolition of the Duma and the holding of formal democratic elections on 30 September.

Above: The momentum builds: Soviet supporters rally in the streets, supported by the army.

The Petrograd Soviet then organized a demonstration in support of its demands: the size of the turnout - estimated to be at least a half million - surprised even the Petrograd Soviet organizers: an even greater shock was the realization that the majority of the demonstrators were Bolshevik supporters. The demonstration grew by leaps and bounds: from 3 to 5 July, the crowd was joined by armed soldiers from the city garrison and sailors from the nearby naval fortress of Kronstadt.

The mass then descended on the Tauride Palace, where the Congress of Soviets was in session, demanding that it take sole power in the country and eject the Duma government for once and for all.

Bolshevik Leadership

The Bolsheviks naturally assumed the leadership of this great demonstration: Lenin and Trotsky could be seen up and down the streets of Petrograd, speaking and whipping up the crowds with appeals for bread, peace and socialism.

Although the demonstration was largely non-violent, the executive committee of the Congress of Soviets denounced it as a counter revolutionary Bolshevik insurrection and summoned troops from the front to disperse the demonstrators. The troops arrived on 5 July - by which time the majority of the crowd had dispersed. The troops however made a symbolic gesture by placing themselves under the command of the Congress of Soviets - effectively ignoring the Duma government.

Kerensky Government

In what was in retrospect an act of supreme stupidity, the Duma then elected the unpopular Kerensky as prime minister on 10 July. His disastrous record as minister of war had been the primary cause of the mass uprising and the break down of the Russian army; now he was head of a government already struggling to keep control over the increasingly restless Soviets.

Kerensky then further destroyed what little support he may have had by postponing the long promised democratic elections until the end of November. He then finally moved against the Bolsheviks: Lenin's entry into the country, courtesy of the Germans was exposed and he was denounced as a German agent: Trotsky was arrested and kept in detention without trial.

Above: Alexander Kerensky - a failed military leader and possibly the second most unpopular Russian leader after the Tsar himself: he fled Russia after the Communists came to power and ended up running a restaurant in America.

The Kerensky government also refused to listen to the increasing clamor for economic reform, ignoring all from the most reasonable demands; to the more outrageous such as the seizure of all land and the outlawing of private property. In short, Kerensky did nothing, always a recipe for trouble.

The Kornilov Incident

Convinced that Kerensky could not cope with the situation, some conservative Russian army elements led by the newly appointed commander in chief of the army, general Kornilov, then made plans to occupy Petrograd and dissolve the Soviet in the city. For a while Kerensky supported the plan, but when he learned that Kornilov intended to depose the Duma government as well, he warned the Petrograd Soviet and appealed for their help in stopping Kornilov.

The Petrograd Soviet then organized the soldiers and workers in the city into armed formations to ward off the Kornilov invasion: the leadership fell almost immediately to the Bolsheviks. As Kornilov's army approached the city, they were met by large numbers of workers and soldiers under the Bolshevist banner, proclaiming friendship and peace. Kornilov's army dissolved in front of his eyes and he was arrested without a shot being fired.

The Kornilov fiasco saw the workers of Petrograd being formally armed: and the Bolsheviks for the first time won an outright majority on the workers' Soviet in the city. At last they were the most popular party in the capital of the country. The popularity of the Bolsheviks then spread to other Soviets around the country: by October, they dominated the Congress of Soviets as well, in effect meaning that the majority of workers' organization in the country were under their influence.

Trotsky and the Military Revolutionary Council

Still however, the Duma government persisted in claiming to be the only legitimate government of the country. Kerensky tried to break up the armed militancy of the Petrograd soldiers' garrison by ordering part of them to the war front: they simply refused and the government was unable to coerce them into doing so.

On 16 October, the Petrograd Soviet created the "Military Revolutionary Committee for the defense of the capital against the counter revolution" - with the Bolshevists achieving an outright majority in the election to head this council. The Mensheviks and others then refused to participate: full control of all military forces in the capital city of Russia then fell under the control of the now freed Trotsky.

The October Revolution

As soon as Trotsky had achieved this important breakthrough, he realized that the time was never better to act decisively. Under his orders, the Military Revolutionary Council seized all important government buildings and sites over the night of the 24 -25 October 1917: the October Revolution, which would create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR), was launched.

Armed workers, soldiers, and sailors stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd, the headquarters of the Duma government and physically ejected them from office. The seizure of power was virtually bloodless.

On 25 October, Trotsky officially announced the end of the Duma government: many of its ministers were arrested and Kerensky fled into exile in America. The second Congress of Soviets was held the next month: it overwhelmingly endorsed the new Bolshevik government. Trotsky's organizational abilities had achieved the transformation of Russia into a Bolshevist dominated state within six months of his arrival in the country.

The New Government - Soviet People's Commissars

The Congress of Soviets then adopted a constitution in which supreme authority was vested in the congress itself. Execution of the decisions of the congress was entrusted to the Soviet of People's Commissars - a gathering of several hundred regional leaders (the "commissars") which was made subject to the authority of the Congress of Soviets and to its Central Executive Committee.

Each of the people's commissars was the chairman of a commissariat (commission) corresponding to the ministries of other governments. Lenin was elected head of the Council of People's Commissars.

The Congress of Soviets then called upon the new government to immediately end the war and to engage in the redistribution of land and economic wealth to the masses: this done; the Congress of Soviets then adjourned. The decisions of the Congress of Soviets on peace and land evoked widespread support for the new government, and they were decisive in assuring victory to the Bolsheviks in other cities and in the provinces.

All banks were nationalized and all factories placed under the control of local Soviets: in short, the most extreme tenets of Marxism were implemented with great haste.

The new government then ended the war with Germany: in terms of the treaty of Brest Litovsk, signed in March 1918, the Ukraine and other parts of western Russia were ceded to Germany.

 Trotsky's Troops Disperse Democratic Government

Above: The Black Hundreds: a pro-Tsarist militia,  march through the city of Odessa. Violently anti-Jewish, they were later to form part of the anti-Communist army which battled the Red Army for supremacy in the aftermath of the October revolution.

Seemingly safe in their hold on power, the new government then held the longed for democratic elections. The results were a rude shock: the Bolsheviks received one of the lowest numbers of votes. Trotsky refused to accept the outcome: the new parliament was physically attacked under his orders by troops from the Military Revolutionary Council and dispersed, never to be heard of again.

From that time on the ideal of a democratically elected government was simply dropped from the political program of the Russian Communist Party, and rule by the commissar system continued as if nothing had happened.


Although the Tsarist government had been universally unpopular, the only democratic election showed that the Bolsheviks were most certainly not the firm favorites to replace them: opposition to the Bolsheviks erupted into a civil war that started in 1918, after the anti-Bolshevik democratically elected parliament was smashed up by Trotsky.

The Bolsheviks became known as the Reds - after their flag - and the anti-Bolsheviks gathered together into an alliance that became known as the Whites. Red and White armies fought several major battles, the most ferocious in 1920, with isolated battles sputtering on until 1924.

Above: The devastation of the Russian civil war upon the Russian and Ukrainian people: a Ukrainian family, suffering from the emaciating disease typhus, sit by the wreckage of their house.

Initially the Whites had the potential to overthrow the Bolshevik dictatorship: however, they destroyed their chances of getting mass support from the anti-Bolshevik voters by associating themselves with the Tsar. Faced with a choice between the Bolsheviks or a return by the Tsar, most Russians stayed neutral, allowing the better armed Reds to finally wear the Whites down.

The Red Terror

Moving the capital to Moscow, the Bolsheviks then instituted what became known as the Red Terror - all opponents, suspected or real - and there were many of them - were arrested and most often executed in a wave of violence which made even the previous Tsarist system seem mild.

A secret police and internal security agency was set up, later to became known as the Cheka, through which opponents of the state were hunted down. Workers' strikes, peasant uprisings, and a sailors' revolt known as the Kronstadt Rebellion were quickly crushed. Victims included the Tsar and his entire family, gunned down and buried anonymously by Cheka policemen after months in detention.

On 30 December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formally established when the ethnic territories of the former Russian Empire were united with the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

Chapter 61

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