The October Revolution (1917-2017)

 Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic - Scott #211 (1922)
Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic – Scott #211 (1922)

One hundred years ago, on October 25, 1917, an armed insurrection occurred in the northwest Russian city of Petrograd (Петрогра́д) that came to be known as the October Revolution (Октя́брьская револю́ция — Oktyabr’skaya revolyutsiya). At the time, Imperial Russia used the Julian calendar; on the Gregorian calendar used in the West, the date of the Revolution converts to November 7. Petrograd had been founded by Tsar Peter the Great in May 1703 on the Neva River, at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, and given the name Saint Petersburg (Санкт-Петербу́рг). It served as the capital of the Russian Empire until 1918 when the seat of government was moved to Moscow; the name was changed to Petrograd in 1914 and to Leningrad (Ленингра́д) in 1924, finally reverting back to Saint Petersburg in 1991.

The October Revolution was officially known in Soviet literature as the Great October Socialist Revolution (Вели́кая Октя́брьская социалисти́ческая револю́ция, Velikaya Oktyabr’skaya sotsialističeskaya revolyutsiya), and commonly referred to as Red October, the October Uprising, the Bolshevik Revolution, or Bolshevik Coup. It was a revolution in Russia led by the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin that was instrumental in the larger Russian Revolution of 1917.

It followed and capitalized on the February Revolution of the same year, which overthrew the Tsarist autocracy and resulted in a provisional government after a transfer of power proclaimed by Grand Duke Michael, brother of Tsar Nicolas II, who declined to take power after the Tsar stepped down. During this time, urban workers began to organize into councils (Soviet) wherein revolutionaries criticized the provisional government and its actions. After the Congress of Soviets, now the governing body, had its second session, it elected members of the Bolsheviks and other leftist groups such as the Left Socialist Revolutionaries to important positions within the new state of affairs. This immediately initiated the establishment of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the world’s first self-proclaimed socialist state. On July 17, 1918, the Tsar and his family were executed which may have been with Lenin’s approval.

The revolution was led by the Bolsheviks, who used their influence in the Petrograd Soviet to organize the armed forces. Bolshevik Red Guards forces under the Military Revolutionary Committee began the occupation of government buildings on November 7, 1917 (I will use the New Style dated throughout the rest of this article). The following day, the Winter Palace (the seat of the Provisional government located in Petrograd, then capital of Russia), was captured.

The long-awaited Constituent Assembly elections were held on November  12. In contrast to their majority in the Soviets, the Bolsheviks only won 175 seats in the 715-seat legislative body, coming in second behind the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which won 370 seats, although the SR Party no longer existed as a whole party by that time, as the Left SRs had gone into coalition with the Bolsheviks from October 1917 to March 1918. The Constituent Assembly was to first meet on November 28, but its convocation was delayed until January 5, 1918, by the Bolsheviks. On its first and only day in session, the Constituent Assembly came into conflict with the Soviets, and it rejected Soviet decrees on peace and land, resulting in the Constituent Assembly being dissolved the next day by order of the Congress of Soviets.

As the revolution was not universally recognized, there followed the struggles of the Russian Civil War (1917–22) and the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922.

The February Revolution had toppled Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, and replaced his government with the Russian Provisional Government. However, the provisional government was weak and riven by internal dissension. It continued to wage World War I, which became increasingly unpopular. A nationwide crisis developed in Russia, affecting social, economic, and political relations. Disorder in industry and transport had intensified, and difficulties in obtaining provisions had increased. Gross industrial production in 1917 had decreased by over 36% from what it had been in 1914. In the autumn, as much as 50% of all enterprises were closed down in the Urals, the Donbas, and other industrial centers, leading to mass unemployment. At the same time, the cost of living increased sharply. Real wages fell about 50% from what they had been in 1913. Russia’s national debt in October 1917 had risen to 50 billion rubles. Of this, debts to foreign governments constituted more than 11 billion rubles. The country faced the threat of financial bankruptcy.

“The Bolshevik” by Boris Kustodiev (1920)

Throughout June, July, and August 1917, it was common to hear working-class Russians speak about their lack of confidence and misgivings with those in power in the Provisional Government. Factory workers around Russia felt unhappy with the growing shortages of food, supplies, and other materials. They blamed their own managers or foremen and would even attack them in the factories. The workers blamed many rich and influential individuals, such as elites in positions of power, for the overall shortage of food and poor living conditions. Workers labelled these rich and powerful individuals as opponents of the Revolution, and called them words such as “bourgeois, capitalist, and imperialist.”

In September and October 1917, there were mass strike actions by the Moscow and Petrograd workers, miners in Donbas, metalworkers in the Urals, oil workers in Baku, textile workers in the Central Industrial Region, and railroad workers on 44 railway lines. In these months alone, more than a million workers took part in strikes. Workers established control over production and distribution in many factories and plants in a social revolution.

By October 1917, peasant uprisings were common. While the uprisings varied in severity, complete uprisings and seizures of the land were not uncommon. Less robust forms of protest included marches on landowner manors and government offices, as well as withholding and storing grains rather than selling them as a result of the economic crisis. When the Provisional Government sent punitive detachments, it only enraged the peasants. The garrisons in Petrograd, Moscow, and other cities, the Northern and Western fronts, and the sailors of the Baltic Fleet in September declared through their elected representative body Tsentrobalt that they did not recognize the authority of the Provisional Government and would not carry out any of its commands.

Soldiers’ wives were key players in unrest in the village. From 1914 to 1917, almost 50% of healthy men were sent to war, and many were killed on the front, resulting in a female occupation of the position of the household head. When government allowances were often late and were not sufficient to match the rising costs of goods, soldiers’ wives sent masses of appeals and letters to the government, which largely were left unanswered. Frustration resulted, and these women were influential in inciting “subsistence riots” — also referred to as “hunger riots,” “pogroms,” or “baba riots”. In these riots, citizens seized food and resources from shop owners who they believed to be charging unfair prices. Upon police intervention, protesters responded with “rakes, sticks, rocks and fists”.

On November 5, the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee voted 10–2 for a resolution saying that “an armed uprising is inevitable, and that the time for it is fully ripe”.

The Bolsheviks created a revolutionary military committee within the Petrograd soviet, led by the soviet’s president, Trotsky. The committee included armed workers, sailors and soldiers, and assured the support or neutrality of the capital’s garrison. The committee methodically planned to occupy strategic locations through the city, almost without concealing their preparations: the Provisional Government’s president Kerensky was himself aware of them, and some details, leaked by Kamenev and Zinoviev, were published in newspapers.

On November 7, 1917, Bolsheviks led their forces in the uprising in Petrograd against the Kerensky Provisional Government. The event coincided with the arrival of a flotilla of pro-Bolshevik marines, primarily five destroyers and their crew, into the harbor. At Kronstadt, sailors also announced their allegiance to the Bolshevik insurrection. In the early morning, the military-revolutionary committee planned the last of the locations to be assaulted or seized from its heavily guarded and picketed center in Smolny palace. The Red Guards systematically captured major government facilities, key communication, installations and vantage points with little opposition. The Petrograd Garrison and most of the city’s military units joined the insurrection against the Provisional Government.

Kerensky and the provisional government were virtually helpless to offer significant resistance. Railways and rail stations had been controlled by Soviet workers and soldiers for days, making rail travel to and from Petrograd, for Provisional Government officials, impossible. The Provisional Government was also unable to locate any serviceable vehicles. On the morning of the insurrection, Kerensky desperately searched for a means of reaching military forces he hoped would be friendly to the Provisional government outside the city, and ultimately borrowed a Renault car from the American Embassy, which he drove from the Winter Palace alongside a Pierce Arrow. Kerensky was able to evade the pickets going up around the palace and drive to meet oncoming soldiers.

As Kerensky left Petrograd, Lenin penned a proclamation “To the Citizens of Russia” stating that the Provisional Government had been overthrown by the Military Revolutionary Committee. The proclamation was sent via telegram all throughout Russia, even as the pro-Soviet soldiers were seizing important control centers throughout the city. One of Lenin’s intentions was to present members of the Soviet congress, who would assemble that afternoon, with a fait accompli and therefore forestall further debate on the wisdom or legitimacy of taking power.

The cruiser Aurora in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Photo taken on June 16, 2009.
The cruiser Aurora in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Photo taken on June 16, 2009.

A bloodless insurrection occurred with a final assault against the Winter Palace, with 3,000 cadets, officers, cossacks and female soldiers poorly defending the Winter Palace. The Bolsheviks delayed the assault because the revolutionaries could not find functioning artillery. The Bolsheviks also prolonged the assault for fear of violence since the insurrection did not generate violent outbreaks. At 6:15 p.m., a large group of artillery cadets abandoned the palace, taking their artillery with them. At 8:00 p.m., 200 cossacks left the palace and returned to their barracks. While the cabinet of the provisional government within the palace debated what action to take, the Bolsheviks issued an ultimatum to surrender. Workers and soldiers occupied the last of the telegraph stations, cutting off the cabinet’s communications with loyal military forces outside the city. As the night progressed, crowds of insurgents surrounded the palace, and many infiltrated it. While soviet historians and officials tended to depict the event in heroic terms, the insurrection and even the seizure of the Winter Palace happened almost without resistance. At 9:45 p.m, the cruiser Aurora fired a blank shot from the harbor. By 2:00 a.m on November 8, Bolshevik forces entered the palace, and after sporadic gunfire throughout the building, the cabinet of the provisional government surrendered.

The Second Congress of Soviets consisted of 670 elected delegates; 300 were Bolshevik and nearly a hundred were Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, who also supported the overthrow of the Alexander Kerensky Government. When the fall of the Winter Palace was announced, the Congress adopted a decree transferring power to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, thus ratifying the Revolution.

The transfer of power was not without disagreement. The center and Right wings of the Socialist Revolutionaries as well as the Mensheviks believed that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had illegally seized power and they walked out before the resolution was passed. As they exited, they were taunted by Leon Trotsky who told them “You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history! The following day, November 8, the Congress elected a Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) with Lenin as leader as the basis of a new Soviet Government, pending the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, and passed the Decree on Peace and the Decree on Land. This new government was also officially called “provisional” until the Assembly was dissolved. Posters were pinned on walls and fences by the Right Socialist Revolutionaries, describing the takeover as a “crime against the motherland and revolution”.

On November 9, 1917 (October 27 old style), the Mensheviks seized power in Georgia and declared it an independent republic. The Don Cossacks also claimed control of their own government. The biggest Bolshevik strongholds were in the cities, particularly Petrograd, with support much more mixed in rural areas. The peasant dominated Left SR Party was in coalition with the Bolsheviks. There are reports that the Provisional Government had not conceded defeat and are meeting with the army at the Front.

On November 10, some posters and newspapers started criticizing the actions of the Bolsheviks and refuted their authority. The Executive Committee of Peasants Soviets “[refuted] with indignation all participation of the organized peasantry in this criminal violation of the will of the working class”. The following day, opposition to the Bolsheviks developed into major counter-revolutionary action. Cossacks entered Tsarskoye Selo on outskirts of Petrograd with Kerensky riding on a white horse welcomed by church bells. Kerensky gave an ultimatum to the rifle garrison to lay down weapons, which was promptly refused. They were then fired upon by Kerensky’s Cossacks, which resulted in 8 deaths. This turned soldiers in Petrograd against Kerensky because he was just like the Tsarist regime. Kerensky’s failure to assume authority over troops was described by John Reed as a ‘fatal blunder’ that signaled the final death of the government.

On November 12, the battle against the anti-Bolsheviks continued. The Red Guard fought against Cossacks at Tsarskoye Selo, with the Cossacks breaking rank and fleeing, leaving their artillery behind. The next day, the Bolsheviks gained control of Moscow after a week of bitter street-fighting. Artillery had been freely used with an estimated 700 casualties. However, there was still continued support for Kerensky in some of the provinces.

On November 14, 1917 (November 1 old style), there was an appeal to anti-Bolsheviks throughout Russia to join the new government of the people, with the Bolsheviks winning even more support from the Russian people. The following day, there was only minor public anti-Bolshevik sentiment; for example, the newspaper Novaya Zhizn criticized the lack of manpower and organization of the Bolsheviks to run a party, let alone a government. Lenin confidently claimed that there is “not a shadow of hesitation in the masses of Petrograd, Moscow and the rest of Russia” towards Bolshevik rule.

A Constituent Assembly was elected on November 25. In these elections, 26 mandatory delegates were proposed by the Bolshevik Central Committee and 58 were proposed by the Socialist Revolutionaries. Of these mandatory candidates, only one Bolshevik and seven Socialist Revolutionary delegates were women. The outcome of the election gave the majority to the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which no longer existed as a full party by that time, as the Left SR Party was in coalition with the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, when it came into conflict with the Soviets

On January 2, 1918 (December 20, 1917 old style), the Cheka was created by the decree of Vladimir Lenin. These were the beginnings of the Bolsheviks’ consolidation of power over their political opponents. The Red Terror was started in September 1918, following a failed assassination attempt on Lenin’s life. The Jacobin Terror was an example for the Soviet Bolsheviks. Leon Trotsky had compared Lenin to Maximilien Robespierre as early as 1904.

The Decree on Land ratified the actions of the peasants who throughout Russia gained private land and redistributed it among themselves. The Bolsheviks viewed themselves as representing an alliance of workers and peasants and memorialized that understanding with the Hammer and Sickle on the flag and coat of arms of the Soviet Union. Other decrees:

  • All private property was nationalized by the government.
  • All Russian banks were nationalized.
  • Private bank accounts were expropriated.
  • The properties of the Church (including bank accounts) were expropriated.
  • All foreign debts were repudiated.
  • Control of the factories was given to the soviets.
  • Wages were fixed at higher rates than during the war, and a shorter, eight-hour working day was introduced.

Bolshevik-led attempts to gain power in other parts of the Russian Empire were largely successful in Russia proper — although the fighting in Moscow lasted for two weeks — but they were less successful in ethnically non-Russian parts of the Empire, which had been clamoring for independence since the February Revolution. For example, the Ukrainian Rada, which had declared autonomy on June 23, 1917, created the Ukrainian People’s Republic on November 20, which was supported by the Ukrainian Congress of Soviets. This led to an armed conflict with the Bolshevik government in Petrograd and, eventually, a Ukrainian declaration of independence from Russia on January 25, 1918.

In Estonia, two rival governments emerged: the Estonian Provincial Assembly, established in April 1917, proclaimed itself the supreme legal authority of Estonia on November 28, 1917, and issued the Declaration of Independence on February 24, 1918. Soviet Russia recognized the Executive Committee of the Soviets of Estonia as the legal authority in the province, although the Soviets in Estonia controlled only the capital and a few other major towns. The success of the October Revolution transformed the Russian state into a soviet republic. A coalition of anti-Bolshevik groups attempted to unseat the new government in the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1922.

In an attempt to intervene in the civil war after the Bolsheviks’ separate peace with the Central Powers, the Allied powers (United Kingdom, France, Italy, United States and Japan) occupied parts of the Soviet Union for over two years before finally withdrawing. The United States did not recognize the new Russian government until 1933. The European powers recognized the Soviet Union in the early 1920s and began to engage in business with it after the New Economic Policy (NEP) was implemented.

The term “Red October” (Красный Октябрь — Krasnyy Oktyabr) has also been used to describe the events of the month. November 7, the anniversary of the October Revolution, was the official national day of the Soviet Union from 1918 onward and still is a public holiday in Belarus and the breakaway territory of Transnistria. The October Revolution of 1917 also marks the inception of the first communist government in Russia, and thus the first large-scale socialist state in world history. After this,  Russia became the Russian SFSR and later part of the USSR, which dissolved in late 1991.

Today, the centennial of the October Revolution, the city of Saint Petersburg is hosting a festival to commemorate the anniversary. In Moscow, the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, will have an exhibition of “young painters dedicated to the October Revolution.” The Bolshoi Theatre had scheduled a concert Sunday called “Hammer and Sickle” commemorating the revolution, but it was interrupted by a bomb threat.

Scott #211 was issued in 1922 as the lowest value in a set of five typographed and imperforate stamps released by the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic to mark the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution. The 5-ruble ocher and black stamp represents a denomination valued at 10,000 times the ruble of 1921 and before.

Ensign of the cruiser Aurora (1968)
Ensign of the cruiser Aurora (1968)
Order of the October Revolution
Order of the October Revolution

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