Red October: The Role of the Bolsheviks in the October 1917 Russian Revolution

By William Hart

The February and October Russian Revolutions established 1917 as a seminal year in political history. They propelled Russia from autocracy to a ground-breaking socialist state in a mere eight months, causing tremendous national upheaval and laying the foundations of the future superpower, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).[1] Understandably, there has been significant historiographical debate over these revolutions, especially concerning the contribution of the Bolshevik Party and its leader Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, to the socialist revolution of October 1917.[2] This denotes the focus of this article, which attempts to briefly evaluate the debate and determine the importance of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the revolution. However, despite Lenin’s effective leadership of the Bolshevik Party and their successful October 1917 coup d’état, the revolution would not have been possible without the failures and weaknesses of the provisional government. Mistakes such as the refusal to end Russian participation in the First World War, the failure solve important social issues as well as the government’s lack of a democratic mandate created urban support for the Bolsheviks and engineered a political power vacuum which allowed the party to capture control of Russia.
To assess the role of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in the October Revolution, it is first necessary to turn to the context in which Russia found itself



between February and October 1917. Following the February Revolution and abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the political elite established a provisional government.[3] Under the leadership of Prime minister Gregory Lvov, it established wide-ranging personal and political freedoms for example, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, universal adult suffrage, reformation of the legal system, abolition of capital punishment and provisions for democratic elections.[4] Indeed, for eight months the new Russian Republic was, at least on paper, founded firmly on values of democracy and social liberalism.[5]


However, the new administration made a number of critical mistakes in its vulnerable first few months. Perhaps the most important miscalculation was the failure to end Russian involvement in the First World War.[6] The conflict had a significant impact on the country. In the west, around 67 million civilians fell under German occupation, with 6 million forcibly displaced.[7] In addition, the military experienced 8 million casualties and 3.3 million killed; the highest of any belligerent nation.[8] Transportation difficulties caused by the war also created food shortages in urban areas which caused mass discontent and protests.[9] The failure of the provisional government to end the conflict severely damaged its credibility and caused dissatisfaction across a broad cross-section of the population.[10] The lack of decisive political action on behalf of the government also meant that the Russian provinces began to run their affairs without the consent of central authority.[11] This created a critical power vacuum that allowed the Bolsheviks to represent themselves as a credible alternative form of authority, helping them to launch the October Revolution.

In addition, the administration failed to rectify the grievances of multiple social groups. For example, no steps were taken to redistribute land to rural people, protect land-owners from peasant land seizures, ensure that workers’ wages rose in line with inflation or introduce an eight-hour working day for the urban proletariat.[12] The government was also too slow in organising national elections and was undermined by its lack of a democratic mandate.[13] Indeed, politician Pavel Milyukov was famously heckled by a crowd member during his speech announcing the premiership of Lvov in February 1917.[14] After a short exchange with the politician, the heckler shouted: ‘Who elected you?’. This succinctly describes the undermining lack of democratic mandate for the new government and, compounded by multiple policy failures, helped to produce widespread public discontent with the administration.


However, Lenin arguably made an important contribution to Bolshevik success in the October Revolution. Returned by the Germans on a sealed train from Switzerland, he arrived at Petrograd’s Finland Station on 3rd April 1917 and started working with the Bolsheviks to prepare for another revolution.[15] The party’s simple slogans such as ‘Peace, Bread and Land!’ and its anti-war, anti-capitalist policies appealed strongly to the urban working-class and helped generate support for the party.[16] Lenin was also a bold and talented leader, helping to inspire dissent in the military, with soldiers challenging officers and in some cases refusing to fight for more than eight hours per day.[17] This popular appeal was highlighted with the significant public enrolment in the Bolshevik Party after the return of Lenin, with 10,000 new members registering in March 1917 and 40,000 more by October 1917.[18]


The importance of urban mass support was also highlighted during the ‘July Days’, a four day period of spontaneous but violent popular protest in Petrograd between 3th and 7th July 1917, for which the Bolsheviks were blamed and Lenin forced into hiding.[19] The scapegoating of this disturbance on the Bolsheviks damaged their public image, even though, as historian Catherine Merridale argues, it was a public reaction against the provisional government.[20] Despite this setback, continued mass support for the Bolsheviks as well as Lenin’s resilience helped the party to survive and launch the socialist revolution in October. However, the Bolsheviks would not have been able to capture power without the failures of the provisional government. Their mistakes created mass discontent that lent the Bolsheviks credibility and allowed them to take control of important urban areas during the revolution.


In terms of this uprising, much historiographical debate has focused on analysing the extent to which it was a popular revolt or a Bolshevik coup d’état.[21] Marxist scholars such as Leon Trotsky argue that the uprising was a mass movement guided by the Bolsheviks, whereas revisionist western historians such as Orlando Figes, suggest that it was a targeted coup that utilised underlying discontent with the provisional government.[22] On the balance of evidence and given the small extent of the uprising, the October Revolution was more likely a Bolshevik coup that utilised public discontent rather than a mass uprising.

This small extent was highlighted by the events of the 25th October 1917, when in retaliation to Prime minister Alexander Kerensky’s pre-emptive closure of the Bolshevik printing press in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks launched their infamous revolution.[23] However, the uprising resulted in few major changes to daily life in major Russian cities and the capture of the provisional government at the Winter Palace was a small-scale, mostly peaceful affair executed by the Bolshevik Party.[24] In fact, despite the carnage depicted in Sergei Eisenstein 1928 propaganda film October, with revolutionaries dramatically storming the Winter Place, the provisional government was arrested without resistance and with the building suffering only a chipped cornice and a shattered third floor window in damage.[25] This demonstrates that the uprising was a coup rather than a mass revolution. However, Bolshevik success would have been impossible without the working-class support created as a result of provisional government failures and the development of a power vacuum that presented the Bolsheviks as a credible alternative source of authority.        


It is unfortunately not possible to cover the complex events of February to October 1917 that facilitated Lenin’s socialist revolution in their entirety during this short article. However, it is clear that the Bolsheviks would not have been able to launch the October Revolution without the failures and weaknesses of the provisional government. Refusing to end Russian participation in the war, failing to address critical political issues and the lack of a credible democratic mandate undermined the provisional government and created a political power vacuum from its inception.[26] This created social discontent across a wide cross-section of the population and allowed the Bolsheviks to reinforce working-class support in cities. This gave them the backing to launch their revolution and consequently initiated the Russian Civil War between Bolshevik forces and those loyal to the provisional government in October 1917.[27] Although Lenin’s party played an important role in launching the successful coup, they would not have been successful without the ability to capitalise on the weakness of the provisional government.


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

[1] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: the Russian revolution, 1891-1924 (London, 1997), p. 358; S.A. Smith, The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2002), p. 40, p. 62.

[2] Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Volume III (London, 1933); Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography (London, 2000); Smith, The Russian Revolution. 

[3] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, pp. 192-193.

[4] Ibid, p. 358.

[5] Ibid, pp. 458-359.

[6] Service, Lenin, p. 280.

[7] Smith, The Russian Revolution, pp. 12-13.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Robert Conquest, Lenin (Glasgow, 1972), p. 80.

[10] Service, Lenin, p. 280; Harold Shukman, Lenin and the Russian Revolution (London, 1966), p. 157; Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 367.  

[11] Service, Lenin, p. 280.

[12] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, pp. 366-367.  

[13] Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the train (London, 2016), p. 134.

[14] Ibid, p. 118.

[15] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, pp. 384-386.

[16] Smith, The Russian Revolution, pp. 34-35.

[17] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, pp. 143-144, p. 147, pp. 379-380.

[18] Smith, The Russian Revolution, pp. 22-24.

[19] Service, Lenin, p. 288.

[20] Merridale, Lenin on the Train, p. 247.

[21] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution; Figes, A People’s Tragedy.

[22] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 175; Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 359; Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 (London, 2014), p. 124.  

[23] Smith, The Russian Revolution, p. 37; Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 484; Conquest, Lenin, p. 89.

[24] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 484.

[25] Ibid, pp. 484-485.

[26] Service, Lenin, p. 280; Shukman, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, p. 157; Figes, A People’s Tragedy, pp. 366- 367; Merridale, Lenin on the Train, p. 134.

[27] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 384.


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