'With reckless daring, new Russia was being born': the October Revolution, 100 years on
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The October Revolution started on 7 November (25 October in the old Russian calendar). It put the Bolsheviks in power in Russia, shocking the rest of the world, leading to the Russian Civil War, the creation of the USSR and subsequently the Cold War.
On March 15 (March 2 in the old calendar), Tsar Nicholas II abdicated after a week of mass protests – the February Revolution, as it has been called. The Provisional Government, a mixture of liberals, socialists and aristocratic grandees, took power.
Led by Vladimir Lenin, the communist Bolsheviks capitalised on continued public discontent, with an armed rebellion in Petrograd (since given back its original name, St. Petersburg) on November 7. On this day, Bolshevik Red Guards occupied government buildings. The following day, they captured the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government and the Tsar’s former residence.
“So, with the crash of artillery, in the dark, with hatred, and fear, and with reckless daring, new Russia was being born,” wrote American journalist John Reed in his first-hand account of the October Revolution, “Ten Days that Shook the World”. Those events in Petrograd continue to resonate in Russia and around the world. Raisa Ostapenko, researcher in Eastern European history at the Sorbonne University, discussed the revolution with FRANCE 24.
FRANCE 24: How did Russia get from the February Revolution – which installed the Provisional Government in power – to the October Revolution?
Initially headed by nonpartisan Prince Georgy Lvov, the Provisional Government was plagued by its lack of political legitimacy and popular support, and by its “bourgeois” image. A challenger emerged in the form of the Petrograd Soviet (the workers’ council) – a Socialist-led institution with little interest in actual administration, but support from Russia’s workers and soldiers, and the ability to pressure the government into reform. The entities cooperated as part of the “Dual Power” arrangement, though largely on the Soviet’s terms.
Eventually, Alexander Kerensky, a young member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party with one foot in each institution, became Russia’s Minister of Justice and then Minister of War. Sustaining Russia’s involvement in World War I, Kerensky failed to resolve economic instability and massive food shortages, and sowed greater frustration by quashing a series of worker and soldier-led rebellions in July 1917.
Though initially seen as a moderate leader, Kerensky was soon politically alienated. His reforms – universal suffrage and freedoms of assembly, press, speech and religion – came as too little too late for Russia’s proletariat, which felt neglected. The Kornilov Affair of September 1917 – an attempted military coup d’état by then Commander-in-Chief General Lavr Kornilov – cemented support for the Bolsheviks.
In short, though the February Revolution resulted in Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication and removed the Romanov line of succession, these changes were simply insufficient to quell the outpouring of popular disaffection that had accumulated under an antiquated system of governance, rampant economic and social inequality, and decades of civic and military turbulence. Further political upheaval was inevitable.
FRANCE 24: What happened on November 7 to bring the Bolsheviks to power?
In April 1917, Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia in a sealed train. Known for his fervent opposition to the war and incitement of violence against the ruling classes, he had previously been exiled to Switzerland by the Tsarist government. His return marked the start of six months of methodical planning by the Leon Trotsky-led Revolutionary Military Committee (consisting of armed workers and soldiers) that would culminate in the October Revolution.
On November 7, the Bolsheviks launched a coup against the Provisional Government. Though Kerensky and his government had superficially come to know of the Committee’s intentions, the Bolshevik uprising proved to be too immense. Supported both by the Petrograd Garrison and a newly docked fleet of marines, the Bolsheviks seized key government facilities with virtually no resistance. The next day, a final assault was launched on the weakly defended Winter Palace – the seat of the Provisional Government and the former home of the Tsar.
FRANCE 24: What was the international response?
Eager to fulfil their promise to end Russia’s involvement in World War I, the Bolsheviks signed an armistice with the Central Powers in December 1917 and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. The Bolsheviks hoped that international communism would one day come to Germany, while Germany awaited the Bolshevik’s failure. Indeed, the revolution brought further turmoil to Russia as the Bolsheviks struggled to maintain power, eventually abandoning an election-based system in favour of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in January 1918. The Russian Civil War broke out shortly thereafter.
Fought largely between the pro-Bolshevik Reds and the Whites (Cossacks, bourgeoisie and other anti-Bolshevik groups), the civil war resulted in millions of deaths. The Whites benefited from substantial military support from France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan, while the Reds – who emerged victorious – enjoyed support from within Russia.
The resonance of the October Revolution was felt across the Russian Empire, including Kiev, which saw its own uprising. The ensuing Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-1921) involved numerous internal and international players. Among the latter were France, Germany, Poland and Romania.
FRANCE 24: How is this anniversary being commemorated in Russia in 2017?
The only groups set to mark the event are Russia’s minority Communist Party and those feeling nostalgic for their Soviet past. Revolutionary fervour has been brewing in Russian for several years now and 2017, as if in homage to the events of 1917, has set itself apart as one of outburst. Anti-corruption protests on March 26 attracted up to 150,000 participants countrywide following a documentary by oppositionist leader Alexei Navalny on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s assets; a similar event on June 12 saw nearly 1,800 arrests. Ultimately, this is the reason why the current government has made it clear that today’s centennial of the Russian Revolution would not be commemorated.
The Revolution was a series of uprisings against unsatisfactory rule, similar to the civil unrest that swept Russia’s neighbour Ukraine in 2013-14 and saw its old president Victor Yanukovych flee across the border. Why would Putin endorse such resistance or commemorate it when his own fist is so tightly wrapped around the sceptre?