From Revolution to Revolution

By Callum Newens

By March 2nd 1917, the February Revolution was over. Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated on behalf of himself, his son and his brother Michael, had refused to ascend to the throne, officially ending the Tsarist regime that had existed since 1547. Yet this was to not end the tumult for Russia. Indeed, Lenin saw the February Revolution as only the first stage, writing: ‘The revolutionary proletariat can therefore only regard the revolution of March 1st as its initial, and by no means complete, victory on its momentous path. It cannot but set itself the task of continuing the fight for a democratic republic and socialism’.[1] The culmination of Lenin’s ‘momentous path’ is seen but eight months later with the October Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power. From relative obscurity to control over Russia, it is the period between February and October that explains the massive power shift within Russian politics that arguably dictated the course of events throughout much of European history in the twentieth century.

In the power vacuum left behind by the collapse of Tsarism after the February Revolution, the Duma took it upon themselves to form the Provisional Government. Published in the newspaper Izvestiia, the Provisional Government was announced as the legitimate authority over Russia, and immediately set out some of their reforms including ‘freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and the right to form unions’, as well as independence for Poland.[2] Despite sounding progressive, crucially, they kept Russia in World War I, an error of judgement that would prove fatal later on.

Headed by Prince Georgy Lvov and later Alexander Kerensky, the Provisional Government during its eight-month lifespan encountered a number of issues. The most major threat to its authority was the Petrograd Soviet. Established in March 1917, the Soviet was body that represented the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, whilst it also controlled many railways and telegraphs, hence making it a powerful organisation. Though it often criticised the Provisional Government, it did, out of necessity however, work alongside it, leading to the era being labelled as that of Dual Power, a term which recognises the sway both institutions held. Indeed, Soviet Order 1, described by Trotsky as ‘the only worthy document of February Revolution’, stated that soldiers only had to obey orders of the Provisional Government if they did not contradict Soviet instructions.[3] Thus, the Provisional Government had official authority, but the loyalty of many of the workers and soldiers lay with the Soviet.

In the months following its formation, the Provisional Government continued to make key missteps, grossly misunderstanding the wants of the people. The army, who wanted peace, were greeted with the continuation of World War I and a huge, failed offensive against the Central Powers in June. The workers, who wanted greater workers’ rights, had ‘Factory Committees’ set up for them, but these made very few real differences and did not give workers control of factories. The lack of genuine reform by the government, due to government disagreements and general ineptitude, led to a number of workers’ strikes, a rising interest in the Soviets and almost 400,000 army desertions. It also led to wide protests, dubbed ‘the July Days’, where between the 3rd and 6th of July almost 30,000 people took to the streets, protesting low wages, the war and, overarchingly, the Provisional Government.

Though it has never been conclusively argued either way, it is believed that the Bolsheviks were behind these July Days. This far-left party led by Lenin, gained increasing traction during 1917. Initially with no sway in the Petrograd Soviet they built grassroots support through their appeal to workers and, launched by Lenin as part of his ‘April Theses’, the simple slogan ‘Peace, Bread, Land’ – a slogan with mass appeal to workers, soldiers and peasants alike.

What increased Soviet and Bolshevik support even more was the Kornilov Affair. Working for the Provisional Government, General Kornilov looked to dismantle the Soviets. He marched on Petrograd but the Red Guards of the Bolshevik Party under Trotsky’s leadership defended the city from his attack. The Bolshevik support in the next election to the Soviets grew 164% whilst animosity towards the Provisional Government grew further.

By October of 1917, the majority of the people, workers and soldiers were on the side of Petrograd Soviet, which itself was led by Trotsky and had the Bolsheviks as the majority party. With influential Bolsheviks vying for power over Russia, occupying senior positions in an organisation that could get them that power, the stage was set for the October Revolution.

Note – All dates given in relation to the Julian Calendar.

[1] Vladimir Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 23, p. 291.

[2] Izvestiia, 3rd March 1917.

[3] Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution. Max Eastman, (London, 1965), p. 291.

 

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