In the space of just nine months in 1917 Russia underwent two revolutions, changing the country’s destiny forever. In February the Russian monarchy collapsed.
In October, squeezing out the moderate forces, the Bolsheviks seized power, leading to a bloody civil war. Subsequently, the Soviet government steered the country for 70 years.
The revolt that brought down the Russian monarchy began on Feb. 23, 1917 (old calendar) (March 8 new calendar), on International Woman’s Day. Beginning with a strike of the weavers from factories in Petrograd’s Vyborgsky District, the protest quickly spread throughout the entire city. According to Georgy Katkov, historian and author of The February Revolution, 90,000 people participated in the revolt on the first day.
Eyewitnesses wrote that the revolution began suddenly. “No one imagined that Woman’s Day would become the first day of the revolution,” wrote author of The History of the Revolution Leo Trotsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders. Katkov underlines that initially the protesters’ main slogan was, “We want bread!” There were serious problems with bread supplies in Petrograd and in the winter of 1917 enormous lines for bread appeared for the first time. Then there were political demands: “End the war!” and “Down with autocracy!”
The revolt expanded with every day. The protesters fought with the police and the government decided to use military force. On February 26 (March 11) Alexander Kerensky, a member of the State Duma and future minister, stated: “The revolution has failed!” expecting the army to mercilessly suppress the rioters. But on the following day the troops began siding with the revolt en masse: Soldiers killed officers that tried to resist. The revolt quickly absorbed all the regiments stationed in the city and the revolution’s victory was sealed.
The force that overthrew the Provisional Government was the extreme left party, the Bolsheviks. Their leader, former political émigré Vladimir Lenin, had arrived in Petrograd from Switzerland on April 3 (April 16) and immediately began propaganda for the radical line. In his “April Theses” program, Lenin demanded an immediate end to the war, land nationalization and the replacement of the “bourgeois-liberal” Provisional Government with a Soviet government. At the time his plan was not supported.
In April 1917 in a letter to Russia’s WWI allies Provisional Government Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov wrote that Russia would maintain all its obligations and continue the war until the victorious end. This provoked anger among the masses – they were tired of war and for two days held protests and demonstrations. The people demanded an end to the war, the dissolution of the government and power to the Soviets. But the crisis was resolved: Milyukov was dismissed and moderate socialists (not Bolsheviks) were included in the government.
A new crisis occurred in July. On July 3-5 (April 16-18) the Bolsheviks, sent an armed crowd of sailors, workers and anarchists onto Petrograd’s streets, clashing with forces of the Provisional Government. With the help of loyal military units the government was able to disperse crowds of protester who were shouting: “Power to the Soviets!” The Bolsheviks were labeled as German spies and were outlawed. Lenin temporarily fled to Finland and Minister-Chairman Alexander Kerensky concentrated power in his hands.
After the attack from the left, the Provisional Government was struck from the right. On Aug. 25 (Sept. 7) Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army General Lavr Kornilov began an assault on Petrograd, intending to establish a military dictatorship – by agreement with Kerensky. However, in the end Kerensky, fearing loss of power, broke the agreement with Kornilov and turned for help to the forces of the left. With the help of the rehabilitated Bolsheviks the assault on Petrograd was stopped. Nevertheless, Kerensky’s authority greatly suffered.
We old men may not live to see the battles of the upcoming revolution,” Vladimir Lenin, informal leader of the Bolshevik party, said in January 1917. Back then, an émigré in Switzerland, he entertained the possibility that he would not be able to participate in the political struggle. But things turned out completely differently: At the end of October that year he would head the revolution against Kerensky and the Provisional Government.
This time the Bolshevik revolt was successful: They were joined by the Soviets and by the army. On the night of Oct. 25 (Nov. 7) the revolutionaries seized the central post and telegraph office and swiftly and successfully stormed the Winter Palace (the government’s residence). Kerensky fled the city and the other ministers were arrested.
Coming to power and proclaiming the power of the Soviets, the Bolshevik government immediately issued two decrees: The Decree on Peace and The Decree on Land. The first proclaimed “immediate peace without annexations and contributions,” the second took away all the land from the landowners and gave it – through the government – to the peasants.
In 1917 the Bolsheviks were far from being the largest party in Russia and they also held radical, extreme left positions. Historians say that Lenin and his supporters were able to maintain power thanks to their strong organization and readiness to promise the people that its wishes would be met “immediately” without waiting for victory in the war, the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, etc. The people’s main demands were peace and land and the Bolsheviks, as soon as they came to power, declared that there would be peace and land.
“Each minute our party is ready to take power in its entirety,” Lenin stated in June 1917 during a rally of the Soviets. There was laughter in the room – no one believed the potential of the Bolsheviks. But several months later no one was laughing: The Bolsheviks indeed seized power in its entirety. It was still a long way until the final victory: there was still the Civil War, which lasted until 1923 and took the lives of almost 13 million people. But the Bolsheviks won that war too. In December 1922 they declared the creation of the first socialist state in the world, the USSR. The communists would govern Russia for almost 70 years.