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
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.”