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Issue #1798      October 11, 2017

Ten days that shook the world

For Russians at the time, the seizure of political power by the Bolsheviks in Petrograd took place on October 25, because that was the date according to the Julian calendar applicable in semi-medieval Tsarist Russia.

But for observers in Britain at the time it took place on November 7. And ever since, readers of histories have needed reassurance, when given dates, as to whether the revolution was being allocated to October or November.

US socialist reporter John Reed’s legendary first-hand account – Ten Days that Shook the World – opted for November, as did WH Chamberlin’s 1935 classic The Russian Revolution.

EH Carr’s magisterial The Bolshevik Revolution (1950) preferred October and so has China Mieville’s strikingly vivid and sympathetic 2017 account, entitled, simply enough: October.

The more fundamental argument has been about which side to be on, looking back 100 years: the Bolshevik or another. Mieville’s stance is unashamedly pro-Bolshevik – he writes in an epilogue: “It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.”

In the preface he writes: “This was Russia’s revolution, certainly, but it belonged and belongs to others, too. It could be ours.”

Not many people today argue that tsarism should have regained power following its collapse early in the year and its replacement by a provisional government which operated, not exactly in partnership, alongside the unprecedented role of local Soviets or councils of workers’ and soldiers’ representatives.

And fans of the provisional government may acknowledge, through its decision to continue an unpopular, imperialist and disastrous war against Germany and Austria, that it was digging its own grave.

But the Lenin-led Bolshevik Party was also forced on to the back foot in early July, after attempting to rein in an out-of-control anti-government rebellion on the streets of Petrograd. Suppression of the demonstrations was followed by the arrests of Bolshevik leaders including Leon Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai, and by Lenin’s escape to Finland.

On the other hand, the provisional government, of which “token socialist” Alexander Kerensky was prime minister from July, was not gaining support at a time of dislocation of transport, rampant inflation, food shortages and dire poverty.

Its Galician military offensive in July was an abysmal failure, accompanied by mass desertions, and then came the fiasco of the attempted military coup by General Lavr Kornilov at the end of August.

These were godsends to the growth in popularity of the “peace and land” program of the Bolsheviks, previously a minority in many soviets but increasingly a majority around the country.

On September 14 came Lenin’s revival of the call “All power to the Soviets” in Rabochi Put (Workers’ Road), and, less publicly, his calls to the party’s more cautious central committee to accept that the time was ripe to take power.

Soon afterwards Lenin moved first from Helsinki to the closer Vyborg and then, on October 7, into Petrograd, a secret guest in the apartment of fellow Bolshevik Marguerita Fofanova in Serdobolskaya Street. Even the party’s central committee was denied his address at that time.

On October 10 he took part in a central committee meeting, when he and nine other members of a depleted committee voted to prepare for armed insurrection, leaving the detailed arrangements and the timing for later.

The two dissentients, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, believed a rising would be savagely suppressed.

But more support was needed for the decision to be activated. On October 15, the overwhelming majority of the Petrograd organisation voted for the rising and the next day a central committee meeting (enhanced by factory and railway workers and military representatives) followed suit.

The following day the Petrograd Soviet created a Military Revolutionary Committee under the presidency of Trotsky (released some weeks before from prison). It was this body which took responsibility for the preparations.

With nine days to go, on October 18, Kamenev, speaking for himself and Zinoviev in Maxim Gorky’s independent paper New Life, blew the insurrection plan, and their objection to it, to the Kerensky government and to the world.

Condemnation of their action by the central committee followed, but the provisional government’s weakness enabled the uprising to stay on track.

It should be effected, the planners decided, before the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets met on the evening of October 25.

Kamenev and Zinoviev, however doubt-ridden, soon re-joined the rest of the leadership.

So what did take place on October 25, according to the Julian calendar? Go back one day, to October 24.

In the small hours prime minister Kerensky ordered government troops to move against the Bolsheviks, first suppressing Bolshevik newspapers including Rabochi Put, posting more defenders in the Winter Palace and other places, ordering the cruiser Aurora (with its pro-Bolshevik crew) to put out to sea, and later in the day attempting to bar passage across the main Neva bridges, resisted strongly by large anti-government crowds.

In response, the Military Revolutionary Committee restored the newspapers to life and countermanded the order to the Aurora.

During the day Lenin, from Fofanova’s apartment, wrote a letter to the central committee. His position regarding an immediate uprising did not require much interpretation. He wrote that “it is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal.”

But, reinforcing the letter, he sent himself too. His every step on the streets of Petrograd risked arrest. He left Fofanova a cryptic note: “I am going where you did not want me to go. Goodbye. Ilych.”

Mieville tells us that shortly before midnight on October 24, a crudely disguised Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (wig plus face bandages) arrived at the Smolny Institute, fortunately attracting insufficient suspicion to be arrested by a provisional government mounted patrol.

During the night shared by October 24 and 25, the Bolsheviks moved from defence to overt insurrection.

Towards four in the morning journalist John Reed was in the outer hall of the Smolny Institute and learned from the Bolshevik Sergey Zorin, a returnee from the US – a rifle slung from his soldier, that the insurrection had begun: “We’re moving ... We pinched the assistant minister of justice and the minister of religions. They’re down cellar now. One regiment is on the march to capture the telephone exchange, another the telegraph agency, another the state bank. The Red Guard is out ...”

Standing outside, Reed had his first sight of Red Guards – “a huddled group of boys in workers’ clothes, carrying guns with bayonets, talking nervously together ... Behind us great Smolny, bright with lights, hummed like a gigantic hive ...”

The Bolshevik forces took over the electric station, enabling them to disconnect government buildings. The main city post office was occupied, as was the Nikolaevsky Station. And as the armoured ship Aurora, through a command of the Military Revolutionary Committee, advanced close to the Nikolaevsky bridge, government forces guarding it fled, soon replaced by Bolshevik sailors and workers.

On the evening of October 25 the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets met, an hour after the Aurora fired a first blank shot in the direction of the Winter Palace, and hours after Lenin’s proclamation had been printed and circulated via walls and telegraph wires.

It began: “To the citizens of Russia. The provisional government has been overthrown ...”

Almost. The palace was taken around 2 am on October 26. The ministers arrested there did not include Kerensky, who had left to join a counter-revolutionary general commanding Cossack troops, intending to return with them. But he never did. He escaped the country in disguise after these troops were forced to retreat when they advanced towards Petrograd.

There was no Bolshevik retreat on the evening of October 26 when Lenin addressed the Second Congress with: “We shall now proceed to build the socialist order,” going on to propose, to enormous applause, the abolition of private property in land and calling for immediate negotiations between the warring countries towards a democratic peace.

A week later Moscow was as red as Petrograd. The great socialist experiment had begun.

Morning Star

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