The up­ris­ing that shook the world

One hun­dred years ago this week, the Bol­she­viks seized power in St Peters­burg, ush­er­ing in the era of com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion

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Why did it hap­pen in Rus­sia?

For much of the 19th cen­tury, Rus­sia had been a back­ward au­toc­racy – it abol­ished serf­dom only in 1861 – but a rel­a­tively sta­ble one: Marx called it “the last hope of the despots”. But in the cen­tury’s last decades, it in­dus­tri­alised fast, cre­at­ing con­di­tions uniquely favourable to vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal change. Mil­lions of peas­ants were, as Leon Trot­sky put it, “snatched from the plough and hurled into the fac­tory fur­nace”. De­nied ba­sic rights, and living in wretched con­di­tions in the bur­geon­ing cities, the new work­ing class be­came politi­cised, not least by Rus­sia’s rad­i­cal Marx­ist in­tel­li­gentsia. By the early 20th cen­tury, Rus­sia was the most strike­prone na­tion in Europe. In the coun­try, grind­ing poverty, land short­ages and high rents led to fre­quent peas­ant up­ris­ings.

How was the Tsar top­pled?

The regime was doomed, ul­ti­mately, by two fac­tors: the un­will­ing­ness of Tsar Ni­cholas II to re­form, and the First World War. Rus­sia, and par­tic­u­larly its cap­i­tal St Peters­burg (re­named Pet­ro­grad in 1914), had been gripped by a wave of in­sur­rec­tions, no­tably the failed 1905 rev­o­lu­tion. So­cial­ist groups, such as the So­cial­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party, and the two fac­tions of the So­cial Demo­cratic Labour Party (the Bol­she­viks, or ma­jor­ity, and the Men­she­viks, or mi­nor­ity) played a sig­nif­i­cant role in this, and in the setting up of work­ers’ coun­cils, or “sovi­ets”. Ni­cholas hung on by promis­ing re­form and the in­tro­duc­tion of a par­lia­ment (the Duma); but his frag­ile author­ity col­lapsed un­der the strain of world war, when poorly led Rus­sian troops suf­fered cat­a­strophic losses against the Ger­man army. Some three mil­lion Rus­sians per­ished; mu­tinies were com­mon­place; se­ri­ous food short­ages led to ri­ots in the cap­i­tal. The Pet­ro­grad gar­ri­son joined the re­volt. Ni­cholas ab­di­cated on 2 March 1917 (15 March by the Western cal­en­dar), end­ing 304 years of rule by the Ro­manov dy­nasty.

Why did a sec­ond rev­o­lu­tion fol­low?

A pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment, a coali­tion led, from July, by Alexan­der Keren­sky of the So­cial­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, was formed to bridge the way to democ­racy. But it was chron­i­cally un­sta­ble and faced a pow­er­ful ri­val in the Pet­ro­grad Soviet of Work­ers’ and Sol­diers’ Deputies, a body of del­e­gates cho­sen from the fac­to­ries and mil­i­tary units, which had sub­stan­tial con­trol over the army, in­dus­try and rail­ways. (Hun­dreds of sovi­ets sprang up across the coun­try in early 1917.) Keren­sky’s gov­ern­ment was also fa­tally weak­ened by its de­ci­sion not to ini­ti­ate land re­form and to keep fight­ing the War. It sur­vived a Bol­she­vik up­ris­ing in July and an at­tempted mil­i­tary coup in Au­gust; but when the crunch came in Oc­to­ber, and Keren­sky or­dered the city evac­u­ated ahead of a Ger­man ad­vance, the army chose to obey the Pet­ro­grad Soviet, not the gov­ern­ment.

Why did the Bol­she­viks tri­umph?

In April, Lenin had re­turned to Rus­sia by train from ex­ile in Switzer­land – fa­mously dis­em­bark­ing at Pet­ro­grad’s Fin­land Sta­tion. His Bol­she­vik party was much smaller than its two main so­cial­ist ri­vals (the So­cial­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party and the Men­she­viks); but his rad­i­cal pro­gramme of “peace, land and bread” – call­ing for an end to the War and in­sist­ing there should be no sup­port for the pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment of “cap­i­tal­ists and land­lords”– rapidly gained pop­u­lar­ity among sol­diers and work­ers, and in the sovi­ets. By Septem­ber, the Bol­she­viks had se­cured ef­fec­tive con­trol of the Pet­ro­grad Soviet, and start­ing on 24 Oc­to­ber (6 Novem­ber), they used this to ef­fect a coup.

How did the Rev­o­lu­tion pro­ceed?

Mil­i­tary units loyal to the Bol­she­viks, backed by Red Guards (armed work­ers) took over gov­ern­ment build­ings and, on the night of 25 Oc­to­ber (7 Novem­ber), seized the Win­ter Palace, where the rem­nants of Keren­sky’s gov­ern­ment were holed up. An al­most blood­less coup, it was “such a small-scale ac­tion”, says the his­to­rian Or­lando Figes, that “it passed un­no­ticed by the vast ma­jor­ity of the in­hab­i­tants of Pet­ro­grad. The­atres, restau­rants and tram cars func­tioned much as nor­mal.” It gave the Bol­she­viks a frag­ile hold on the cap­i­tal, but not on the rest of the coun­try, let alone Rus­sia’s large, dis­in­te­grat­ing em­pire. So civil war erupted be­tween Red and White counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. How­ever, by late 1922 the Bol­she­viks had won that war and cre­ated the USSR.

Did Lenin­ism in­evitably lead to Stal­in­ism?

His­to­ri­ans have ar­gued about this for decades. The Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, writes Pro­fes­sor S.A. Smith, “set out to do noth­ing less than de­stroy an en­tire so­cial sys­tem and re­place it with a so­ci­ety su­pe­rior to any­thing that had ex­isted hith­erto in hu­man his­tory”. It cer­tainly did the for­mer, but the gen­eral con­sen­sus to­day is that, as Figes puts it, “the ba­sic in­sti­tu­tions, if not the prac­tices, of the Stal­in­ist regime were in place” by the death of Lenin in 1924. Lenin left a state com­mit­ted to to­tal­i­tar­ian rule based on the party, the army and the se­cret po­lice; the sovi­ets, in whose name the Bol­she­viks seized power, had been ren­dered im­po­tent. Dur­ing the Red Ter­ror that started in 1918, civil­ian

en­e­mies of the regime were crushed.

Did it al­ter the course of his­tory?

For many his­to­ri­ans, it was the cen­tral event of the 20th cen­tury. “A mere thirty to forty years af­ter­wards,” as Eric Hob­s­bawm put it, “one-third of hu­man­ity found it­self living un­der regimes di­rectly de­rived from the Rev­o­lu­tion and Lenin’s Com­mu­nist Party.” Yet to­day, a mere 25 years af­ter the end of the USSR, there are only five states that still call them­selves com­mu­nist: China, Cuba, Viet­nam, Laos and North Korea (the only one still with a Stal­in­ist cen­trally planned econ­omy). Tony Bren­ton, the UK’S for­mer am­bas­sador to Moscow, called the Rev­o­lu­tion one of “his­tory’s great dead ends, like the Inca Em­pire”. “In­deed, as the 21st cen­tury ad­vances,” re­marks Pro­fes­sor Smith, “it may [yet] come to seem that the Chi­nese Rev­o­lu­tion was the great rev­o­lu­tion of the 20th cen­tury.”

Lenin ad­dresses the Moscow crowd in Oc­to­ber 1917

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