The Provisional Government and the October Revolution
In March 1917 two organisations established themselves as governing bodies in Petrograd. The first was the Provisional Government, an interim regime made up of the Tsar’s former ministers and the leaders of the Duma. It was largely middle class and aristocratic and was mirrored by an organisation of workers and soldiers, the Petrograd Soviet. The soviet also claimed it was the legitimate people’s government in the city of Petrograd.
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The problems of the Provisional Government
In the final days of Tsar Nicholas II’s reign, as the February Revolution swept the autocracy away, a provisional government formed, made up of a coalition led by the Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party. The government appointed a new prime minister of Russia, the liberal aristocrat Prince Georgi Lvov. The previous body that effectively ruled Russia in the Tsar’s absence, the Council of Ministers was replaced by the new government. The Provisional Government was only ever meant to be a short term care taker government, set up to manage Russia until elections could be held and a fully democratic government created. It is important to remember that the government was not elected and had no democratic legitimacy and Prince Lvov was acutely aware of this.
The Petrograd Soviet
The Tauride Palace in Petrograd was home to both the Provisional Government but also
an elected body of workers and soldiers deputies, the Petrograd Soviet. The word soviet
means council or committee and during both the February Revolution and the 1905 Revolution, workers and soldiers had elected committees of their peers in factories and army barracks to decide what to do. Bosses and commanding officers had either been chased away or killed and this meant that the workers and soldiers suddenly had immense freedom to manage their own affairs. Delegates from these soviets attended a the Petrograd Soviet, which viewed itself a a supreme city wide democratic institution. During the 1905 Revolution the soviet had established itself as a form of rival democratic government to the Tsar. It was abolished when the revolution failed, but twelve years later the delegates hoped they could project their power across Russia and attempted to act as a rival to the Provisional Government, a body the soviet believed had no legitimacy. Within two weeks there were three thousand deputies from across the city representing army regiments and factories at the Soviet. It had established a revolutionary newspaper called Izvestia (meaning ‘News’), which circulated the soviets ideas and demands to the city’s residents. The first chairman of the Soviet was a member of the Menshevik Party, Nikolay Chkheidze. Meetings were chaotic as hundreds of delegates at a time shouted, argued and talked across each other, turning some meetings of the soviet into noisy free for alls.
The leaders of the soviet formed an executive committee and believed they spoke on behalf of Petrograd’s ‘revolutionary peoples’. Because there were soviets in every public
amenity and essential service including the railways, telegraphs and post office), the soviet could control all aspects of public life if it had to. It also had enormous influence over the armed forces. Nearly all army regiments had sent delegates to the soviet and on March 1st 1917 the first decree of the new body was Petrograd Soviet Order No. 1. This decree ordered soldiers and sailors to obey the Provisional Government as long as the government’s policies did not contradict the decrees of the Petrograd Soviet. This meant that the Provisional Government was able to rule Russia, but the soviet could effectively control it. The soviet publicly criticised the government and within weeks of the revolution had sent revolutionary commissars to the front line in the war still being fought against Germany to ensure the rest of the army came under the control of the government and the soviet. In June 1917 the Petrograd Soviet began to add delegates from across Russia and renamed itself the All Russian Congress of Soviets.
The return of exiles
The Provisional Government had to agree to policies that were unlikely to benefit it, due to pressure from the Petrograd Soviet. The Soviet created the Contact Commission, a body set up to communicate with the Provisional Government. On March 6th, at the demand of the soviet, the Provisional Government declared an amnesty for all political prisoners of the Tsarist regime. In Siberia, Bolsheviks such as Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev were freed from exile and hurried to Petrograd. When Stalin arrived in the city twelve days later he joined the Petrograd Soviet. On March 27th the Menshevik Leon Trotsky left New York, where he had been living as a political exile with his family to head back to Russia. Six days later Lenin and the core of the Bolshevik Party leadership arrived at Petrograd’s Finland Station on April 3rd. The decision by the Provisional Government to amnesty all revolutionaries would have profound consequences for the government and Russia.
The problem of the war
From the outset the Provisional Government had an impossible dilemma to wrestle with. There was a widespread popular demand for Russia to exit from the First World War, by 1917 the costs of the war in human and economic terms had been enormous. However, Prince Lvov and his ministers were unable to bow to popular demands for the following reasons:
- Loans: Russia was bankrupt and her economy was being propped up by loans from
Britain and France, guaranteed by America. If Russia abandoned her allies, she would face economic catastrophe.
- Peace Deal: In order to exit from the war, Russia would have to sign a peace treaty with Germany. The Germans would no doubt drive a hard bargain and want large swathes of territory.
- Patriotism: Many Russians still believed their country could win and were determined to fight on. Relatives of the millions of Russian war dead did not want to believe their loss had been in vain.
- Legitimacy: Some ministers in the Provisional Government argued that a major policy change such as an armistice that would have lasting consequences for Russia could not be carried out before an elected government had come to office.
- Territorial Gains: Some members of the Provisional Government believed that if they could win the war and gain territory as a result, it would cement the popularity of the new government. Since the end of the Brusilov Offensive, there had been no clear strategy proposed to defeat Germany and as 1917 wore on, the army’s position deteriorated. A combination of revolutionary ideas, low morale and a desire to return to Russia to take part in the land grab on the nobles estates.
The Milyukov Note
In April 1917 the first serious unrest in the capital after the Provisional Government’s Foreign Minister, Pavel Milyukov sent the French and the British Governments a telegram. In it he reassured his allies that Russia’s war aims had not changed. Russia would continue to wage an offensive war against Germany and her allies and would expect to be granted territory at the post war peace conference. The telegram was leaked to the public and angry crowds gathered in Petrograd demanding an end to the war. They were particularly enraged as the note seemed to contradict official government policy, that had committed Russia to simply a ‘defensive war’. The protests were the first major show of public dissatisfaction against the Provisional Government. The hopes of February 1917 had been
raised so high that it was inevitable that there would be disappointments.
Lenin’s bid for power
Vladimir Lenin, born Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov was the son of a well respected schools inspector from Simbirsk on the eastern edge of European Russia. His family were minor landowners but were also typical of the educated middle classes who grew to oppose the Tsar. Lenin’s father had insisted that his children grow up with a sense of civic responsibility and work towards changing Russia for the better. His father died in 1886 and the following year a further tragedy struck the family when Lenin’s brother, Alexander, was arrested by the tsarist police, guilty of taking part in an assassination plot to kill Tsar Alexander III. Even though he had only minor involvement in the conspiracy, Alexander was executed and the family was forced to move, exiled from the polite society they had once been members of. Lenin studied law at Kazan University but at university came into contact with
radical revolutionary ideas. He was expelled and finally completed his studies in St Petersburg. He joined a party called the Social Democrats and was arrested for distributing revolutionary literature. He was exiled for three years in Siberia and when the sentence ended in 1900 he spent the following 17 years in exile developing the Bolshevik Party (see section # for more on the evolution of the Bolsheviks).
Leon Trotsky was born Leon Bronstein in 1879 into a well to do Jewish farming family in Yanovka in the Ukraine. He was intelligent, rebellious and discovered revolutionary politics when he was sent away to boarding school near Odessa on the Black Sea. He joined the Social Democratic Party and became a well known writer and journalist in party publications. Like Lenin, he was quickly discovered by the Tsarist secret police and was imprisoned in 1898. He was sent into exile in Siberia with his wife Alexandra, where they had two daughters, but he escaped in 1902, abandoning his family to continue his revolutionary work. He lived in exile in Europe and returned to Russia to take part in the 1905 Revolution which ended in his exile to Siberia once more. It taught Trotsky valuable lessons about how to fight the authorities and how to set up a revolutionary government. He escaped once again in 1907 and travelled London where he met Lenin for the first time, but
for most of the years before the war he was based in Vienna. When the February Revolution happened he was living in New York among the immigrant Russian community and raced back to Russia. He was arrested along the way by the British when the ship he was on docked in Nova Scotia and placed in an internment camp, but the Provisional Government intervened on his behalf. He was able to return to Russia and arrived on May 4th.
Lenin and the war
Lenin was one of the few European socialists who was completely opposed to the war. Most socialists across Europe decided to support their national governments’ war policies, fearing that defeat would be far worse than supporting the governments they opposed. Lenin believed that the war was being fought by the working classes on behalf of their bourgeois masters but he also saw the conflict as an opportunity. He believed it should become a class war, and that the working classes across Europe should realise how they were being exploited and turn their guns on their class enemies.
Lenin’s return and the April Theses
Because Lenin and the other members of the Bolsheviks in exile did not anticipate the February Revolution, they were not prepared for the complex journey back to Russia. Lenin travelled by train from Zurich, a journey that took eight days across Germany and German held territory. Lenin was helped by the German Government who believed that sending him back to Russia would undermine the Provisional Government and bring about an end to the war on the Eastern Front. The Bolsheviks travelled on a ‘sealed train’, meaning that its passengers were not recognised as legally entering Germany, instead they had to stay onboard until they arrived in Russia. The journey took them through Germany, by ferry to Sweden and then by train again to Finland and Petrograd. Along the way he wrote an essay called ‘The tasks of the Proletariat’ also known as Lenin’s April Theses. He used
the points in the April Theses to angrily attack the Bolshevik Party when he returned to Petrograd (see below). He argued that the job of the Bolsheviks should be:
- To oppose the Provisional Government, which in Lenin’s eyes was no better than the
- To secure an immediate peace with Germany.
- Power to the workers and poorer peasants.
- The abolition of the state.
- The creation of a republic of soviets.
- Confiscation and nationalisation of all land.
- He summed it up with by demanding: ‘Peace, bread, land and all power to the Soviets.’
Lenin and the other Bolsheviks arrived in Petrograd on April 16th 1917 and he was greeted by party members, representatives from the soviet, workers and soldiers. However, despite the enthusiastic welcome, Lenin was extremely displeased by the actions of the Bolshevik Party in Petrograd. He demanded to know why they had not already started to plan the overthrow of the Provisional Government and why the party’s newspaper, Pravda, had preached caution. The Bolsheviks Joseph Stalin, Lev Kamenev and Matvei Muranov had taken over the paper’s editorship and they all believed that the Bolsheviks stood little chance of overthrowing the Provisional Government. Instead they thought that conciliation and cooperation were the only options; by working with the Provisional Government they hoped they would wield some influence. Lenin believed that the Provisional Government would very quickly reinstate the Tsar’s policies if not the Tsar himself and that it had no potential for any kind of change at all. He demanded an immediate change of policy and
threatened a showdown with Stalin if he disagreed. Stalin realised that Lenin was far more influential and powerful than he was and backed down. This was part of a long campaign by Lenin to stamp his influence on the party and get it ready for revolution.
The June Offensive
In June 1917 the Russian Army launched its final offensive of the war. The Provisional Government’s Minister of War, Alexander Kerensky ordered the offensive and gave General Brusilov the task of commanding Russia’s armies. The offensive was doomed from the outset, partly because of the unpopularity of the war among Russia’s civilian population, but also because the Petrograd Soviet’s decision to introduce Soviet Order No 1 had resulted in chaos on the front lines. Soldiers, now represented by the Soviet’s revolutionary commissars who had bee dispatched to the front line, refused to take orders from their officers. Bolshevik agitators also infiltrated the army, spreading a revolutionary message against the continuation of the war. The offensive was meant to drive the Germans and
Austrians from Poland and it succeeded in devastating the Austrian forces with heavy artillery, but the German Army was far more resilient. Heavy losses led to a break down in Russian morale and military discipline. Troops began to refuse to take orders or to listen to their committees over their officers. The committees held the power within the army and by the time they had finished deliberating, the Russian Army had lost the initiative. When the Germans counterattacked they broke through the disintegrating Russian lines marching into the Baltic states of the Russian Empire and occupying Riga, the capital of Latvia in September. The failure of the offensive was a disaster for the Provisional Government and it showed that they could not rely on the ordinary Russian soldiers to fight for them.
The July Days
The failure of the offensive intensified anti war feelings in Petrograd and when the scale of the disaster was revealed, thousands of Petrograd workers downed tools and went on strike. The outbreak of city wide protests against the Provisional Government were notgreeted by immense excitement or enthusiasm by Lenin, the Bolsheviks were not leading the protests and so a path to revolution that did not involve them was in his eyes, a potential disaster. Lenin believed that he had correctly interpreted Marx’s writing and adapted it for Russia’s circumstances and that as a result, only a Bolshevik seizure of power could be
allowed. Anarchists began the revolt amongst the army, but the All Russian Congress of Soviets (which had formerly been the Petrograd Soviet), forbade the protests. They were fearful that a collapse of order in the city might end in a German occupation of Petrograd and believed it was still worthwhile to support the Provisional Government. The fact that many soldiers now ignored the congress indicated that support for it had declined and its support for the Provisional Government had caused it to lose much of its credibility. After initially
having misgivings about supporting the striking workers and mutinous soldiers, Lenin eventually decided that he needed to try to direct the uprising, but the results were less than successful. Whilst some Bolsheviks demanded that the party use the opportunity to seize power, Lenin was unsure, not convinced that the time was right. When troops loyal to the Provisional Government opened fire on demonstrators the protests came to an end. The July Days had several far reaching consequences:
- Because the Provisional Government authorised the use of deadly force against protesters, it was seen by many Russians as little better than the Tsar’s government.
- Lenin was forced to flee into exile in Finland in the ensuing crack down, and other leading revolutionaries such as Trotsky were arrested and imprisoned.
- Prince Lvov, the first Prime Minister of Russia stepped down, he was exhausted and depressed by the scale of problems that faced the country and had no idea about how to address them. He was replaced by Alexander Kerensky.
Kerensky now identified Lenin as the chief threat to the stability of the Provisional Government and was determined to eliminate him. He announced that Lenin was an agent in the pay of the German Government and ordered his arrest. Lenin was convinced that if he were arrested he would be executed by Kerensky’s police and by August 1917 he fled to Finland, along with fellow Bolshevik Gregori Zinoviev. Whilst he was in hiding, he wrote an essay called State and Revolution, which spelt out how Russia would be governed after a Bolshevik revolution. Some members of the Bolshevik Party such as Nikolai Bukharin believed that if capitalism was overthrown then an oppressive state would no longer be required (the role of the state in the eyes of some Bolsheviks was simply that of protecting private property and the rich and powerful). Lenin argued in State and Revolution that a powerful centralised state would be essential after the revolution. The state would be needed to seize the wealth of the upper classes and the bourgeoisie, to imprison class enemies and to defend the revolution itself. Lenin had originally agreed with Bukharin, but from 1916 onwards he came to see the state as a tool of class repression; if Lenin seized power he would use it to repress
the wealthy classes. Lenin demanded that the Bolshevik Party now work towards the armed overthrow of the Provisional Government. He believed that the time was right to seize power and impose a Bolshevik regime on Russia, but few in the rest of the party agreed. Lenin was isolated in his own party in his demands for revolt, but he was unable to see what conditions were like for the Bolsheviks in Petrograd. The majority of the party’s leadership had been arrested and the rest were in hiding, so Lenin’s demands for revolution seemed wildly unrealistic.
The Kornilov plot
Lenin was not the only person planning the overthrow of the Provisional Government in August 1917. Following the disaster of the June Offensive Kerensky dismissed Brusilov as head of the army and appointed a new general, Lavr Kornilov. The new head of the army had never accepted the outcome of the February Revolution and he demanded that ruthless military discipline was reintroduced to the army, blaming revolutionary ideas for its weakness at the front. Following the July Days, a number of businessmen and aristocrats on the right offered their support to any leader who might be able to take charge of an increasingly chaotic Russia. Kornilov commanded his men at the front, attempting to hold
together some kind of resistance against the German Army, but he was more concerned with saving Russia from herself. He believed that the All Russian Congress of Soviets needed to be crushed and did not think Kerensky had the support to do it. Some historians argue that communications between Kerensky and Kornilov became confused during August 1917, and that the general was not initially considering a coup. Other historians argue that Kerensky had a plan arranged with Kornilov to initiate a military coup, with both men ruling Russia, but as the plan was put into practice Kerensky had second thoughts and called Kornilov a counter revolutionary. Kerensky, highly nervous and suspicious about potential threats to his power, suspected Kornilov might be planning a coup and dismissed him as the head of the army, leading Kornilov to mount his bid for power.
The extent to which Kerensky is at fault for partially initiating the attempt is unclear, but what is certain was Kornilov’s intentions during August 1917.
A panicked Kerensky, realising he had very little armed military support in Petrograd turned to the soviet for help. He was forced to release the Bolsheviks he had recently imprisoned, knowing that they were the only potential source of opposition to Kornilov left. He armed the Bolsheviks, a fateful decision, as they refused to return the weapons they had been given and would turn them on Kerensky’s government just weeks later. Railway workers who were members of the Bolshevik Party disabled the railway network that Kornilov hoped to use to bring troops into Petrograd and Bolshevik agitators spoke in secret to the general’s troops, causing many to mutiny and desert. When Kornilov realised his forces were disintegrating he called off his counter revolution but before he could flee
he was captured and arrested by some of the few troops still loyal to the Provisional Government.
One of the most significant results of the failed Kornilov coup was a significant increase in support for the Bolshevik Party. The party’s propagandists presented them as heroic defenders of the revolution, but the reality of the coup (see above) was far less dramatic. The Bolsheviks gained a majority on the All Russian Soviet and the Moscow Soviet that had been established which demonstrated a growth in support. However the control of both soviets was also explainable by the fact that other political parties began to boycott them and delegates from factories and army regiments that were not allied to any political party attended sessions with less and less regularity. Following the euphoria of the February Revolution a growing political apathy gripped the soviets as the intractable problems that
Russia faced took up the time and energy of many of the delegates. The Bolsheviks were the only party who did not succumb to apathy; one of Lenin’s achievements was to instil discipline into party members, who were able to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. Lenin decided that it was safe to return to Russia, in September 1917. He set about organising the party for the seizure of power, stating that: “Revolutions do not make themselves.” He sensed that the opportunity the Bolsheviks had been waiting for was near, particularly because Russian society had begun to dramatically polarise following the Kornilov plot. Workers and peasants began to flock to revolutionary parties, including the Bolsheviks, as they interpreted the Kornilov plot as a ‘bourgeois’ attempt to undo
The party decides
Lev Kamenev argued that all the parties of the left should form a revolutionary coalition to seize power but Lenin over ruled him, stating that the party should take power alone. Lenin believed that the Bolshevik Party was the only real representative of Russia’s working class. Lenin was suspicious that other political parties would disagree with the violent class war he wanted to unleash on Russia following a successful seizure of power. Lenin finally convinced the central committee of the party to vote for his planned insurrection on October 10th 1917, by a margin of ten votes for, two votes against. He was particularly keen to seize power before planned elections to the soviet in November. If Russians went to the polls in their millions, the new government they elected would have democratic
legitimacy, and if that new government did not feature a Bolshevik majority, he wanted to be able to abolish it. Lenin had begun planning the revolution in September and knew that he needed to control Petrograd’s military forces. He established a Military Revolutionary Committee to coordinate the soldiers and sailors in the city who were loyal to the party. The committee was a
Bolshevik organisation but it presented itself to soldiers in their garrisons as Soviet organisation. This was crucial, because the soldiers would only serve the Soviet, which was not completely under Bolshevik control. When Trotsky was released from prison at the start of September, he joined and led the Military Revolutionary Committee. Once the party was able to direct the activities of soldiers, they were able to overthrow the Provisional Government with ease.
The revolt was concluded with remarkably little fighting. The Military Revolutionary Committee directed the revolution from the Smolny Institute in Petrograd and Red Guard detachments of workers and soldiers fanned out across the city to capture key bridges, telegraph and post offices and government ministries. They encountered very little opposition
(several important facilities, such as railways stations) had been occupied by workers loyal to the Bolsheviks for days, meaning that forces loyal to Kerensky would have been unable to relieve the government. Sailors from the Kronstadt naval base in the Gulf of Finland sailed up the River Neva in the battleship Aurora and fired the ship’s guns at the Winter Palace. Even though the ship used blank shells, it signalled to the remaining ministers of the Provisional Government that they had little choice than to surrender. Bolshevik soldiers were able to wander into the Winter Palace where the government met virtually unopposed. The Provisional Government had no military force to speak of to defend it by late 1917, meaning that the Bolsheviks did not so much seize power as acquire it without a fight.
Kerensky fled the city when he realised there was no one to support him, but Lenin was not particularly concerned with him or the rest of the Provisional Government. Instead he wanted to inform the soviet and the other parties that the Bolsheviks had seized power. Initially they hoped that the Bolsheviks had seized power on behalf of the soviet and the other parties, but they quickly realised that it was a Bolshevik coup.