Written by Vladimir Moss



     The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on March 2, 1917 marked the end of the Christian era of political history initiated by the coming to power of St. Constantine the Great in 306. The enormous change – and the enormous loss – was felt immediately by those who lived through it. As the novelist I.A. Bunin wrote: “Our children and grandchildren will not be able even to imagine that Russia in which we once (that is, yesterday) lived, which we did not value and did not understand – all that might, complexity, wealth and happiness…”  

      The power that replaced that of the tsar was from the beginning dual, being composed of the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet of soldiers’ and workers’ deputies. And they were unequal partners: already on the night before the abdication the Duma had begged Himmer, Nakhamkes and Alexandrovich of the Petrograd Soviet to allow them to create a government. This showed that the Soviet, and not the Provisional Government, was the real ruler of Russia now.

      And already on March 2, in its very first act, “Soviet Order Number One”, the Soviet rubbed the government’s nose in the dust: “The orders of the military commission of the State Duma are to be obeyed only in such instances when they do not contradict the orders and decrees of the Soviet”. In other words, while the official power was in the hands of the Duma, the real power lay in the hands of the Soviets; the Provisional Government that officially came into being on March 3 was to rule only by permission of the real ruler, the Soviet, which had come into being on March 1 and supposedly represented the soldiers and workers. The immediate effect of Order Number One was to destroy discipline in the army, as soldiers refused to salute or obey their officers – or simply went home to join in the looting of landowners’ and church estates. And so the Tsar’s main purpose in abdicating – to preserve the army as a fighting force capable of defeating the Germans – was frustrated before the ink was dry on his manifesto.

     On the same day, March 2, at the Tauris palace in Petrograd, Pavel Milyukov announced the formation of a “Provisional” government to oversee the administration of the country until the convening of an elected Constituent Assembly. The “poisonous question” was put to him: “Who elected you?” Many years later Milyukov wrote: “I could have read out a whole dissertation in reply. We were not ‘elected’ by the Duma. Nor were we elected by Lvov in accordance with the tsar’s order prepared at Headquarters, of which we could not have been informed. All these sources for the succession of power we ourselves had consciously cast out. There remained only one reply, the clearest and most convincing. I replied: ‘The Russian revolution has elected us!’ This simple reference to the historical process that brought us to power shut the mouths of the most radical opponents.”[1]

      But if it was the revolution that “elected” the leaders of the Provisional Government, they could not really object to the further “election” of Lenin, could they? That is why they offered no real opposition to the Bolshevik revolution in October, and were so easily swept into “the dustbin of history”, in Trotsky’s phrase.

      The formal head of the Provisional Government was Prince Lvov. But the real leader was the Justice Minister, Alexander Kerensky, a Trudovik lawyer who had wanted to be an actor. As Graham Darby writes, contemporaries saw Kerensky “as the real prime minister from the outset but despite being in both the government and the soviet – thereby embodying the dual power structure – he was in between the two camps, distanced from party politics, a politician of compromise who would fail to reconcile the irreconcilable… For a brief moment Kerensky was the essential man, the peoples’ tribune, a fine orator and a man of charisma. A good actor, he could catch the mood of an audience. He wore semi-military costume and attempted to strike a Napoleonic pose. He enjoyed immense popularity, even adulation, in the early months and a personality cult grew up around him fuelled by his own self-promotion, a range of propaganda (articles, medals, badges, poems) and a receptive audience. Many saw him as a saviour, the true successor to the tsar. There was, however, an inherent contradiction between Russia’s political culture, with its dependency on powerful leaders, and the democratic ideology of the early stages of the revolution, a contradiction embodied in Kerensky, the undemocratic democrat. The adulation went to his head and he came to overestimate his popularity long after it had evaporated. He moved into the Winter Palace, lived in the tsar’s apartments and used the imperial train. He was seemingly powerful but only by virtue of the offices he held and the fickle nature of mass popularity. To sustain the latter he had to fulfil everyone’s expectations, but as Lenin pointed out, he ‘wanted to harmonise the interests of landowners and peasants, workers and bosses, labour and capital’. It was an impossible task…”[2]

     P. Novgorodtsev writes: "Prince Lvov, Kerensky and Lenin were bound together by an unbroken bond. Prince Lvov was as guilty of Kerensky as Kerensky was of Lenin. If we compare these three actors of the revolution, who each in turn led the revolutionary power, in their relationship to the evil principle of civil enmity and inner dissolution, we can represent this relationship as follows. The system of guileless non-resistance to evil, which was applied by Prince Lvov as a system of ruling the state, with Kerensky was transformed into a system of pandering to evil camouflaged by phrases about 'the revolutionary leap' and the good of the state, while with Lenin it was transformed into a system of openly serving evil clothed in the form of merciless class warfare and the destruction of all those displeasing to the authorities. Each of the three mentioned persons had his utopian dreams, and history dealt with all of them in the same way: it turned their dreams into nothing and made of them playthings of the blind elements. The one who most appealed to mass instincts and passions acquired the firmest power over the masses. In conditions of general anarchy the path to power and despotism was most open to the worst demagogy. Hence it turned out that the legalized anarchy of Prince Lvov and Kerensky naturally and inevitably gave way to the demagogic despotism of Lenin."[3]

      Since the legitimizing power of the Tsar’s orders had been rejected, there remained only the authority of a popular election, according to liberal theory. But the Provisional Government had not, of course, been elected. Rather, its purpose was to supervise the election of a Constituent Assembly which alone, according to liberal theory, could bring a legitimate government into power. So Miliukov resorted to a deliberate paradox: they had been “elected” by the revolution. The paradox consists in the fact that revolutions do not “elect” in accordance with established legal procedures; for the revolution is the violent overthrow of all existing procedures and legalities…

      But if the Provisional Government came to power through the revolution – that is, through the violent overthrow of all existing legalities – it had no legal authority to suppress the continuation of the revolution through the violent overthrow of its own power. In this fact lies the clue to the extraordinarily weak and passive attitude of the Provisional Government towards all political forces to the left of itself. It could not rule because, according to its own liberal philosophy, it had no right to rule… No such inhibitions were felt by the radical socialists, for whom might was right and the niceties of liberal political philosophy and procedure were irrelevant.

      The lesson was clear: if the Russians did not want to be ruled by the God-anointed Tsar, then, by God’s permission and as punishment for their sins, they would be ruled by the Satan-appointed Soviets…

      The Soviet Order number one of February, 1917, and the success of the Bolshevik propaganda against the war from April onwards, destroyed discipline in the army. As more and more soldiers returned to their villages, the June offensive ended in dismal failure. General Alexeyev had calculated that the losses would be about 6000, but they turned out to be 400,000.[4] An offensive that had been designed by Kerensky and the liberals to bolster the state and the forces of law and order by bringing all classes together on a patriotic wave ended by opening the path to the final destruction of the state.


     The coup began with the setting up of a separate government by the Bolshevized sailors of Kronstadt, which precipitated a confused “semi-insurrection”, in Trotsky’s words, in early July. But the insurrection failed, Kerensky became prime minister and a crackdown on the Bolsheviks began. Lenin fled, disguised as a woman, to Finland, and many party members were arrested. It was left to Stalin and Sverdlov, working underground, to keep the party afloat… The Mensheviks and other socialists to the right of the Bolsheviks also helped at this critical point. Believing that there were “no enemies to the Left”, and fearing a counter-revolution, they protected the Bolsheviks from treason charges. A year later, the Bolsheviks proved their ingratitude by imprisoning the Mensheviks…[5]

      In spite of this setback, support for the Bolsheviks continued to grow, especially after they adopted the SR slogan, “Land to the Peasants!” legalizing the peasants’ seizure of the landowners’ estates. As their wars against the peasantry in 1918-22 and 1928-1934 were to show, the Bolsheviks were never a pro-peasant party, and really wanted to nationalize the land rather than give it to the peasants. This was in accordance with Marxist teaching, which saw the industrial proletariat as the vanguard of the revolution, but looked down on the peasants, with their religiosity, old-fashioned ways and rejection of state interference, as being relics of the old order. However, towards the end of his life, in 1881, Marx had entered into correspondence with the narodnik Vera Zasulich, and had recognized the possibility that the revolution in Russia could begin with the agrarian socialists.[6]So Lenin had some precedent in making tactical concessions to the SRs at this point – concessions he was soon to take back once he was in power. It paid off: many Left SRs joined the party, and others voted for the Bolsheviks in the Soviets.

      In late August, alarmed by the increasing power of the Bolsheviks, and by the German advance on Petrograd, which was creating chaos in the rear, General Kornilov, the new commander-in-chief of the Russian armies, ordered his troops to march on Petrograd in order to restore order. As he said on August 11: “It is time to put an end to all this. It is time to hang the German agents and spies, with Lenin at their head, to dispel the Council of Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and scatter them far and wide, so that they should never be able to come together again!”[7] Right-wing forces in politics (Rodzyanko, Guchkov, Milyukov), in business and in the army (the Officers’ Union and the Union of Cossacks) soon rallied around him, hoping to prevent the Russian revolution from following the pattern of the French revolution and passing from a bourgeois, liberal phase to a Jacobin, terrorist one. It may be that Kerensky originally invited Kornilov to save the Provisional Government from the Bolsheviks. Be that as it may, Kerensky soon renounced Kornilov, and Kornilov renounced the Provisional Government. But on the approaches to Petrograd, Bolshevik agitators and railwaymen managed to infiltrate Kornilov’s troops and persuade them to give up the coup attempt.

      Orlando Figes writes: “The social polarization of the summer gave the Bolsheviks their first real mass following as a party which based its main appeal on the plebeian rejection of all superordinate authority. The Kornilov crisis was the critical turning point, for it seemed to confirm their message that neither peace nor radical social change could be obtained through the politics of compromise with the bourgeoisie. The larger factories in the major cities, where the workers’ sense of class solidarity was most developed, were the first to go over in large numbers to the Bolsheviks. By the end of May, the party had already gained control of the Central Bureau of the Factory Committees and, although the Menshevik trade unionists remained in the ascendancy until 1918, it also began to get its resolutions passed at important trade union assemblies. Bolshevik activists in the factories tended to be younger, more working class and much more militant than their Menshevik or SR rivals. This made them more attractive to those groups of workers – both among the skilled and the unskilled – who were becoming increasingly prepared to engage in violent strikes, not just for better pay and working conditions but also for the control of the factory environment itself. As their network of party cells at the factory level grew, the Bolsheviks began to build up their membership among the working class, and as a result their finances grew through the new members’ contributions. By the Sixth Party Conference at the end of July there were probably 200,000 Bolshevik members, rising to perhaps 350,000 on the eve of October, and the vast majority of these were blue-collar workers.”[8]

      Similar swings to the Bolsheviks took place in the city Duma elections of August and September, and in the Soviets. “As early as August, the Bolsheviks had won control of the Soviets in Ivanovo-Voznesensk (the ‘Russian Manchester’), Kronstadt, Yekaterinburg, Samara and Tsaritsyn. But after the Kornilov crisis many other Soviets followed suit: Riga, Saratov and Moscow itself. Even the Petrograd Soviet fell to the Bolsheviks… [On September 9] Trotsky, appearing for the first time after his release from prison, dealt the decisive rhetorical blow by forcing the Soviet leaders to admit that Kerensky, by this stage widely regarded as a ‘counter-revolutionary’, was still a member of their executive. On 25 September the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet was completely revamped, with the Bolsheviks occupying four of the seven seats on its executive and Trotsky replacing Chkheidze as its Chairman. This was the beginning of the end. In the words of Sukhanov, the Petrograd Soviet was ‘now Trotsky’s guard, ready at a sign from him to storm the coalition’.”[9]

      On October 10 Lenin returned secretly to Petrograd from Finland determined that an armed insurrection should be launched now, even before the convening of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on October 20; for he did not want to share power with the other parties represented at the Congress. On October 10, by a margin of ten to two (Zinoviev and Kamenev voted against) his views prevailed in the Central Committee, and on October 16 Trotsky set up the Petrograd Revolutionary Military Committee, which was theoretically under the control of the Petrograd Soviet but was in fact designed to be the spearhead of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power.

      Trotsky’s support for the Leninist line was crucial to the success of the revolution. For a long time he had not seen eye-to-eye with Lenin. Originally a Menshevik, in 1904 he accurately summed up Lenin’s dictatorial aims: “The party organization is substituted for the party, the Central Committee is substituted for the party organization, and finally a ‘dictator’ is substituted for the Central Committee”.[10] And as late as March, 1917, Lenin had expressed his wariness of Trotsky: “The main thing is not to let ourselves get caught in stupid attempts at ‘unity’ with social patriots, or still more dangerous… with vacillators like Trotsky & Co.”[11] Nevertheless, by 1917 there were no major differences between the two revolutionaries, so it was logical that Trotsky should join - it was probably his vanity and ambition that had prevented him from surrendering to the party he had criticized for so long. And now his oratorical power to sway the mob, and the key position he occupied in the Petrograd Soviet and its Revolutionary Military Committee, supplied the vital element that propelled the Bolsheviks to power.

      Figes continues: “The rising fortunes of the Bolsheviks during the summer and autumn were essentially due to the fact that they were the only major political party which stood uncompromisingly for Soviet power. This point bears emphasizing, for one of the most basic misconceptions of the Russian Revolution is that the Bolsheviks were swept to power on a tide of mass support for the party itself. The October insurrection was a coup d’étât, actively supported by a small minority of the population (and indeed opposed by several of the Bolshevik leaders themselves). But it took place amidst a social revolution, which was centred on the popular realization of Soviet power as the negation of the state and the direct self-rule of the people, much as in the ancient peasant ideal of volia. The political vacuum brought about by this social revolution enabled the Bolsheviks to seize power in the cities and consolidate their dictatorship during the autumn and winter. The slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ was a useful tool, a banner of popular legitimation covering the nakedness of Lenin’s ambition (which was better expressed as All Power to the Party). Later, as the nature of the Bolshevik dictatorship became apparent, the party faced the growing opposition of precisely those groups in society which in 1917 had rallied behind the Soviet slogan…”[12]


     The lack of opposition to the Bolshevik coup was almost farcical. First, the Petrograd garrison mutinied, leaving the government no substantial forces in the capital. Then, on the night of the 24th, Kerensky fled in a stolen car. The rest of the ministers huddled in the Winter Palace guarded by some Cossacks, cadets and 200 women from the Shock Battalion of Death – about 3000 people in all. But such was their lack of morale that by the evening only 300 of these were left. Very little fighting actually took place.

      The Bolsheviks’ most potent weapon was the blank round fired by the cruiser Aurora at 9.40 p.m. “The huge sound of the blast, much louder than a live shot, caused the frightened ministers to drop at once to the floor. The women from the Battalion of Death became hysterical and had to be taken away to a room at the back of the palace, where most of the remaining cadets abandoned their posts.”[13] When the Bolsheviks finally stormed into the Palace, their first act was to break open the wine cellars and get drunk…

      The only real drama took place at the Soviet Congress, which finally convened at 10.40 p.m. The delegates at first supported the formation of a Soviet government, which, if the Bolsheviks had really believed their slogan: “All Power to the Soviets!” should have stopped their coup in its tracks. “Martov proposed the formation of a united democratic government based upon all the parties in the Soviet: this, he said, was the only way to avert a civil war. The proposal was met with torrents of applause. Even Lunacharsky was forced to admit that the Bolsheviks had nothing against it – they could not abandon the slogan of Soviet Power – and the proposal was immediately passed by a unanimous vote. But just as it looked as if a socialist coalition was at last about to be formed, a series of Mensheviks and SRs bitterly denounced the violent assault on the Provisional Government. They declared that their parties, or at least the right-wing sections of them, would have nothing to do with this ‘criminal venture’, which was bound to throw the country into civil war, and walked out of the Congress hall in protest, while the Bolshevik delegates stamped their feet, whistled and hurled abuse at them.

      “Lenin’s planned provocation – the pre-emptive seizure of power – had worked. By walking out of the Congress, the Mensheviks and SRs undermined all hopes of reaching a compromise with the Bolshevik moderates and of forming a coalition government of all the Soviet parties. The path was now clear for the Bolshevik dictatorship, based on the Soviet, which Lenin had no doubt intended all along. In the charged political atmosphere of the time, it is easy to see why the Mensheviks and SRs acted as they did. But it is equally difficult not to draw the conclusion that, by their actions, they merely played into Lenin’s hands and thus committed political suicide…”[14]

      Trotsky shouted after the departing delegates: “You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to go – into the dustbin of history.” Then he proposed a resolution condemning the “treacherous” attempts of the Mensheviks and SRs to undermine Soviet power. The mass of the remaining delegates (Bolsheviks and Left SRs) fell into the trap and voted for the motion, thereby legitimizing the Bolshevik coup in the name of the Soviet Congress.

      At 2 a.m. the ministers in the Winter Palace were arrested and cast into the Peter and Paul fortress. Kamenev announced the arrest of the ministers to the Congress.

      “And then Lunacharsky read out Lenin’s Manifesto ‘To All Workers, Soldiers and Peasants’, in which ‘Soviet Power’ was proclaimed, and its promises on land, bread and peace were announced. The reading of this historic proclamation, which was constantly interrupted by the thunderous cheers of the delegates, played an enormous symbolic role. It provided the illusion that the insurrection was the culmination of a revolution by ‘the masses’. When it had been passed, shortly after 5 a.m. on the 26th, the weary but elated delegates emerged from the Tauride Palace. ‘The night was yet heavy and chill,’ wrote John Reed. ‘There was only a faint unearthly pallor stealing over the silent streets, dimming the watch-fires, the shadow of a terrible dawn rising over Russia…’”[15]

      “We have it on the authority of Trotsky himself,” writes Richard Pipes, “that the October ‘revolution’ in Petrograd was accomplished by ‘at most’ 25,000-30,000 persons – this in a country of 150 million and a city with 400,000 workers and a garrison of over 200,000 soldiers.

      “From the instant he seized dictatorial power Lenin proceeded to uproot all existing institutions so as to clear the ground for a regime subsequently labelled ‘totalitarian’. This term has fallen out of favour with Western sociologists and political scientists determined to avoid what they consider the language of the Cold War. It deserves note, however, how quickly it found favour in the Soviet Union the instant the censor’s prohibitions against its use had been lifted. This kind of regime, unknown to previous history, imposed the authority of a private but omnipotent ‘party’ on the state, claiming the right to subject to itself all organized life without exception, and enforcing its will by means of unbounded terror…”[16]

      “On the day after the coup,” writes Adam Tooze, “Lenin proposed that the Constituent Assembly elections be cancelled altogether. There was no need for such an exercise in ‘bourgeois democracy’. But he was overruled by the Bolshevik Executive Committee, which decided that to flout the democratic hopes of the February revolution so openly would do more harm than good.”[17]

      In the elections, the turnout was large (60%), and Russians voted in large numbers for the main socialist party of the SRs (58%). The Bolsheviks polled only 25%, the Ukrainian Mensheviks - 12%, and other national parties - 4%. In all, socialist or revolutionary parties received 80% of the vote, while the liberal Cadets received 5%.[18]  There is no question about it: the revolution was not imposed upon the Russian people, in their great majority they called it upon themselves…

      According to Solzhenitsyn, “‘More than 80% of the Jewish population of Russia voted’ for Zionist parties. Lenin wrote that 550,000 were for Jewish nationalists. ‘The majority of the Jewish parties formed a single national list, in accordance with which seven deputies were elected – six Zionists and Gruzenberg. ‘The success of the Zionists’ was also aided by the [published not long before the elections] Declaration of the English Foreign Minister Balfour [on the creation of a ‘national centre’ of the Jews in Palestine], ‘which was met by the majority of the Russian Jewish population with enthusiasm’.”[19] Thus in many cities there were festive manifestations, meetings and religious services.

      The Constituent Assembly was convened in January, 1918. On the first day, “between 3 and 4 a.m. on the 6th, the Chairman of the Assembly and leader of the SRs, Victor Chernov (1873-1952), was trying to pass a law for the abolition of landed property when he was tapped on the shoulder by a sailor, the commander of the Bolshevik Guard. ‘I have been instructed to inform you that all those present should leave the Assembly Hall,’ the sailor announced, ‘because the guard is tired’.”[20] The Assembly never reconvened.

      So the supreme authority in the Russian republic disappeared because the guard was tired… Thus was Russian democracy brought to an abrupt and inglorious end…And with it disappeared the last chance that the Russian people would have to reinstate the monarchy in a peaceful and orderly fashion and avoid the great catastrophe that now overtook them…


September 28 / October 11, 2017.


[1] Katkov, Fevral’skaya Revolyutsiuya, Paris: YMCA Press, 1984, p. 370.

[2] Darby, “Kerensky in Hindsight”, History Today, July, 2017, p. 51.

[3] Novgorodtsev, “Vostanovlenie svyatyn" (“The Restoration of the Holy Things”), Put' (The Way), N 4, June-July, 1926, p. 4.

[4] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, London: Pimlico, 1997, p. 408.

[5] Figes, op. cit., p. 436.

[6] Robert Service, Comrades, London: Pan Books, 2007, p. 30.

[7] Kornilov, in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, 2004, p. 727.

[8] Figes, op. cit., p. 457.

[9] Figes, op. cit., p. 459.

[10] Trotsky, Our Political Tasks (1904); in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 679.

[11] Lenin, Letter to Alexandra Kollontai, March 15, 1917; in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 726.

[12] Figes, op. cit., pp. 460-461.

[13] Figes, op. cit., p. 488.

[14] Figes, op. cit., pp. 489-490.

[15] Figes, op. cit., p. 492.

[16] Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, London: Fontana, 1995, p. 499.

[17] Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, London: Penguin, 2015, p. 84.

[18] Tooze, op. cit., p. 85; Pipes, op. cit., pp. 5, 149.

[19] Solzhenitsyn, Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together), Moscow, 2001, p. 73.

[20] Norman Davies, Europe, London: Pimlico, 1996, p. 921.

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