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 only possible source for the legitimate, ordered succession of power after the abdication of the Tsar was the Tsar’s own orders, given on the same day, transferring royal power to his brother, Great Prince Michael, and appointing – at the request of the Duma representatives Guchkov and Shulgin -Prince G.E. Lvov as President of the Council of Ministers and General L.G. Kornilov as Commander of the Petrograd military district. But the Duma politicians had no intention of accepting Great Prince Michael as tsar (Milyukov and Guchkov were in favour of a constitutional monarchy, but not a true autocracy), and soon they compelled him, too, to abdicate (he was shot in Perm in June, 1918). As for Lvov, he was made head of the Provisional Government, but not by virtue of any order of the Tsar, whose authority the Duma politicians rejected.

     The Duma politicians had a real problem of legitimacy. 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 that alone, according to liberal theory, could bring a legitimate government into power. So when the formation of the Provisional Government was announced Miliukov on March 2, he resorted to a deliberate paradox. In response to the question “Who elected you?” he replied that they had been “elected” by the revolution.[1] The paradox consisted 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…

     If it was the revolution that “elected” the leaders of the Provisional Government, what objection could they have against the further “election” of Lenin in the next stage of the revolution? They could have none. 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. For if the Provisional Government came to power through the revolution – that is, through the violent overthrow of all existing procedures and legalities – it had no legal authority to suppress the continuation of the revolution (for who can tell when the revolution is complete?) 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 irrelevant. Already the previous night the Duma had begged Himmer, Nakhamkes and Alexandrovich of the Petrograd Soviet to allow them to create a government; which showed that the Soviet, and not the Provisional Government, was the real ruler.

      “The two forces that brought down the monarchy,” writes S.A. Smith, “ – the mass movement of workers and soldiers and the middle-class parliamentary opposition – became institutionalized in the new political set-up, the Petrograd Soviet keeping a watchful eye over the Provisional Government. The government, headed by Prince G.E. Lvov, a landowner with a long record of service to the zemstvos, was broadly representative of professional and business interests. It was liberal, even mildly populist, in its politics; the only organized force within it was the Kadet Party, once a liberal party but now evolving rapidly in the direction of conservative nationalism. In its manifesto of 2 March, the government pledged to implement a far-reaching programme of civil and political rights and to convoke a Constituent Assembly. Significantly, it said nothing about the burning issues of war and land. The government, which had no popular mandate, saw its principal task as being to oversee the election of a Constituent Assembly, which would determine the shape of the future polity. It believed that only such an assembly had the authority to resolve such pressing issues as land redistribution.

      “The Petrograd Soviet enjoyed the real attributes of power since it controlled the army, transport, and communications, as well as vital means of information. It also had a popular mandate insofar as 1,200 deputies were elected to it within the first week. A few Bolsheviks, anarchists, and others pressed the Soviet to assume full power, but the moderate socialist intellectuals who controlled its executive committee believed that this was not appropriate to a revolution whose character they defined as ‘bourgeois’, i.e. as destined to bring about democracy and capitalist development in Russia rather than socialism. In addition, they feared that any attempt to assert their authority would provoke ‘counter-revolution’. Consequently, they agreed to support but not to join the ‘bourgeois’ Provisional Government, so long as it did not override the interests of the people. The radical lawyer A.F. Kerensky alone of the Petrograd Soviet representatives determined to join the government, portraying himself as the ‘hostage of the democracy’ within it. Thus was born ‘dual power’. In spite of the prevailing mood of national unity, it reflected a deep division in Russian society between the ‘democracy’ and ‘propertied society’.

      “Outside Petrograd dual power was much less in evidence. In most localities a broad alliance of social groups formed committees of public organizations to eject police and tsarist officials, maintain order and food supply, and to oversee the democratization of the town councils and zemstvos. The government endeavoured to enforce its authority by appointing commissars, most of whom were chairs of county zemstvos – which by this stage were undergoing democratic election – and the soviets reflected the deep fragmentation of power in provincial towns and cities. In rural areas peasants expelled land captains, township elders, and village policemen and set up township committees under their control. The government attempted to strengthen its authority by setting up land and food committees at township level, but these too fell under peasant control. At the very lowest level the authority of the village gathering was strengthened by the revolution, although it became ‘democratized’ by the participation of younger sons, landless labourers, village intelligentsia (scribes, teachers, vets, and doctors), and some women. The February Revolution thus devolved power to the localities and substantially reduced the capacity of the Provisional Government to make its writ run beneathy the county level.”[2]

     However, the immediate result of the abdication of the Tsar was not the emergence of a new power, but a power vacuum – that is, anarchy. I.L. Solonevich writes: “I remember the February days of our great and bloodless [revolution] – how great a mindlessness descended on our country! A 100,000-strong flock of completely free citizens knocked about the prospects of Peter’s capital. They were in complete ecstasy, this flock: the accursed bloody autocracy had come to an end! Over the world there was rising a dawn deprived of ‘annexations and contributions’, capitalism, imperialism, autocracy and even Orthodoxy: now we can begin to live! According to my professional duty as a journalist, overcoming every kind of disgust, I also knocked about among these flocks that sometimes circulated along the Nevsky Prospect, sometimes sat in the Tauris palace, and sometimes went to watering holes in the broken-into wine cellars. They were happy, this flock. If someone had then begun to tell them that in the coming third of a century after the drunken days of 1917 they would pay for this in tens of millions of lives, decades of famine and terror, new wars both civil and world, and the complete devastation of half of Russia, - the drunken people would have taken the voice of the sober man for regular madness. But they themselves considered themselves to be completely rational beings…”[3] 

     The very first act of the Soviet, “Soviet Order Number One”, proclaimed: “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, the Provisional Government that officially came into being on March 3, and which was formed from liberal Duma deputies, 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. So Soviet power was born in March, not October, 1917. Only for a few months this fact was masked by the “dual power” arrangement with the Provisional Government.

     The immediate effect of Order Number One was to destroy discipline in the army. Florence Farmborough wrote in her diary for March 4, 1917: “Manifestoes from the new Government have begun to be distributed widely along the Russian Front. Our Letuchka [flying squad] is well supplied with them; many are addressed to me by the military staff – a courtesy which I greatly appreciate. The main trend of these proclamations directed especially to the fighting men, is FREEDOM. ‘Russia is a free country now,’ the Manifestoes announce. ‘Russia is free and you, Russian soldiers, are free men. If you, before being freed, could fight for your Mother-Country, how much more loyally will you fight now, when, as free men, you will carry on the successful conflict on behalf of your free Country.’ So the great perevorot [revolution] had come! Russia is a free country! The Russians are a free people! Tremendous excitement reigns on all sides; much vociferous enthusiasm, tinged with not a little awe. What will happen now? Newspapers are seized and treasured as though made of gold, read, and re-read. ‘The Dawn of Russian Freedom!’ ‘The Daybreak of the New Epoch!’ rhapsodise the romancer-reporters. A prekaz [order] has been sent to the Front Line soldiers describing the otkaz [dismissal] of the Emperor. We were told that in some sectors the news had been received with noisy gratification; in others, the men have sat silent and confused…”[4]

     The soldiers had to decide: which of the two powers – the Provisional Government or the Soviets – were they to obey? On March 7 a “Text of Oath for Orthodox and Catholics” and signed by Lvov was published and distributed to the army: “I swear by the honour of an officer (soldier, citizen) and promise before God and my own conscience to be faithful and steadfastly loyal to the Russian Government, as to my Fatherland. I swear to serve it to my last blood… I pledge obedience to the Provisional Government, at present proclaimed the Russian government, until the establishment of the System of Government sanctioned by the will of the People, through instrumentality of the Constituent Assembly…”[5]

     In general, the officers were happy to make this oath. And soldiers of all faiths repeated it word for word and then shouted “Hurrah!” But what of those who did not believe in God, or who thought they were now free of all masters – not only of Batyushka Tsar, but also of Batyushka God?

     The Soviet also made its power felt in the composition of the Provisional Government. Thus Rodzyanko was excluded from the list of ministers as being unacceptable to the masses; while Guchkov and Miliukov, the Ministers of War and Foreign Affairs, who had also played major roles in the abdication, did not last beyond the April Crisis after their support for the continuation of the war became apparent. For on April 4 the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet, without calling for an end to the war as Lenin would do in a few days’ time, had demanded self-determination, no annexations and no indemnities – a “peace without defeat” policy that was similar to President Wilson’s earlier “peace without victory” programme and elicited support from both the German SPD and British Labour and Liberal MPs.

     “One of the bitterest ironies of 1917,” writes Adam Tooze, “is that the peace programme of the Russian revolution echoed that sponsored by the American president only a few months earlier prior to America’s entry into the war: a peace without victory, without annexation or indemnities and based on self-determination. If Wilson had been able to stay out of the war a few months longer, or the tsar’s regime had fallen a few weeks sooner, the revolutionary regime in Petrograd might have offered the president precisely the wedge that he wanted to drive Britain and France to the negotiating table. Germany’s gamble on the U-boats voided that fateful juncture…”[6]

     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…”[7]

     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 depotism of Lenin."[8]

     In an article written in 1923 G. Mglinsky explained why the government proved so weak: “Understanding the absence of firm ground under their feet because of the absence of those layers of the population on which it was possible to rely, the new government fell immediately into dependence on the ‘Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’ which had been formed even before the abdication of his Majesty the Emperor, and behind which there stood the capital’s working masses who had been propagandized by the same Russian intelligentsia. Although it did not really sympathize with the content of Order Number 1, which destroyed the army, and understood all its danger, the Provisional Government nevertheless allowed the carrying out of this order – so criminal in relation to the fatherland - by the hands of its Minister of War Guchkov.

     “Fearing a reaction in the Russian people, which, as it well understood, would hardly be likely to be reconciled with the seizure of power by a bunch of intriguers, the Provisional Government from the very beginning of its activity tried hard to destroy the state-administrative apparatus. With a stroke of the pen all administrative power in Russia was destroyed. The governors were replaced by zemstvo activists, the city commanders – by city-dwellers, the police – by militia.

     “But, as is well known, it is always easy to destroy, but very difficult to create. And so it was here: having destroyed the old state apparatus, the Provisional Government did not think of, or, more likely, was simply not able to create anything in its place. Russia was immediately handed over to itself and nepotism was introduced as a slogan for the whole of the state administration, and this at precisely the moment when a strong power was required as never before.

     “When representatives of the old and new administrations came to the head of the Provisional Government, Prince [G.E.] Lvov, and demanded directions, they unfailingly received the same refusal which Prince Lvov gave to the representatives of the press in his interview of 7 March, that is, five days after the coup. ‘This is a question of the old psychology. The Provisional Government has removed the old governors and is not going to appoint anybody. They will be elected on the spot. Such questions must be resolved not from the centre, but by the population itself… We are all boundlessly happy that we have succeeded in living to this great moment when we can create a new life of the people – not for the people, but together with the people… The future belongs to the people which has manifested its genius in this historical days. What great happiness it is to live in these great days!...’

     “These words, which sound now like pure irony, were not invented, they are found in the text of the 67th page of the first volume of A History of the Second Russian Revolution written, not by any die-hard or black-hundredist, but by Paul Milyukov ‘himself’, who later on the pages of his history gives the following evaluation of the activity of the head of the government which he himself joined as Minister of Foreign Affairs:

     “’This world-view of the leader of our inner politics,’ says Milyukov, ‘led in fact to the systematic cessation of activity of his department and to the self-limitation of the central authority to a single task – the sanctioning of the fruits of what in the language of revolutionary democracy is called the revolutionary creation of rights. The population, left to itself and completely deprived of protection from the representatives of the central power, necessarily had to submit to the rule of party organizations, which acquired, in new local committees, a powerful means of influence and propagandizing certain ideas that flattered the interests and instincts of the masses, and for that reason were more acceptable for them.’ ”[9]

     There was no real opposition to this wanton destruction of old Russia because the forces on the right were in a state of shock and ideological uncertainty that left them incapable of undertaking any effective counter-measures. We search in vain for a leader, in Church or State, who called for the restoration of the Romanov dynasty at this time. Perhaps the deputy over-procurator, Raev, who called on the Synod to support the monarchy, was an exception to this rule, or the only Orthodox general who remained faithful to his oath, Theodore Keller. Or perhaps Archimandrite Vitaly (Maximenko) of Pochaev monastery, the future Archbishop of Eastern America, who, “having found out about the emperor’s abdication… travelled to the Tsar’s military headquarters in Mogilev in order to plead with the sovereign to rescind his abdication. He was not allowed a meeting…”[10]

     Orthodox monarchism, it seemed, was dead… The abdication of the Tsar was greeted with joy by people of all classes – even the peasantry. As Oliver Figes writes, “the news from the capital was joyously greeted by huge assemblies in the village fields. ‘Our village,’ recalls one peasant, ‘burst into life with celebrations. Everyone felt enormous relief, as if a heavy rock had suddenly been lifted from our shoulders.’ Another peasant recalled the celebrations in his village on the day it learned of the Tsar’s abdication: ‘People kissed each other from joy and said that life from now on would be good. Everyone dressed in their best costumes, as they do on a big holiday. The festivities went on for three days.’ Many villages held religious processions to thank the Lord for their newly won freedoms, and offered up prayers for the new government. For many peasants, the revolution appeared as a sacred thing, while those who had laid down their lives for the people’s freedom were seen by the peasants as modern-day saints. Thus the villagers of Bol’she-Dvorskaya volost in the Tikhvinsk district of Petrograd province held a ‘service of thanksgiving for the divine gift of the people’s victory and the eternal memory of those holy men who fell in the struggle for freedom’. The villagers of Osvyshi village in Tver province offered, as they put it, ‘fervent prayers to thank the Lord for the divine gift of the people’s victory… and since this great victory was achieved by sacrifice, we held a requiem for all our fallen brothers’. It was often with the express purpose of reciprocating this sacrifice that many villages sent donations, often amounting to several hundred roubles, to the authorities in Petrograd for the benefit of those who had suffered losses in the February Days.”[11]

     This confusion of the values of Christianity with those of the anti-Christian revolution was also evident in contemporary literature – in, for example, Blok’s poem The Twelve, in which Christ is portrayed at the head of the Red Guards. The prevalence of this confusion among all classes of society showed how deeply the democratic-revolutionary ideology had penetrated the masses in the pre-revolutionary period. For those with eyes to see it showed that there could be no quick return to normality, but only a very long, tortuous and tormented path of repentance through suffering…



     In February, 1917 Lenin was living in Switzerland. He had been on the German payroll as an agent of the Reich for some time. The plan to smuggle him into Russia  went back to 1915, when Alexander Helphand, code-named Parvus, a German Jewish agent, persuaded the German Foreign Ministry that they might engineer a mass strike in Russia. On December 29, 1915 he recorded receiving a million rubles to support the revolution in Russia from the German envoy in Copenhagen. Still larger sums were given by Jewish bankers in the West. The leading American Jewish banker who bankrolled the Bolsheviks was Jacob Schiff, a member of Bnai Brith, a cabbalistic sect founded in 1843 in America.[12]Schiff was related to the German Jewish banker Warburg, who financed the Bolsheviks from Germany. Lilia Shevstova writes: “Germany provided the Bolsheviks with substantial funds for ‘revolutionary purposes’: prior to October 1917, the Germans had paid them 11 million German gold marks; in October 1917, the Bolsheviks received another 15 million marks.”[13]

     “It has been estimated,” writes Niall Ferguson, “that 50 million gold marks  ($12m) were channelled to Lenin and his associates, much of it laundered through a Russian import business run by a woman named Evgeniya Sumenson. Adjusting on the basis of unskilled wage inflation, that is equivalent to £800m today.”[14]


   In March, 1917, Arthur Zimmermann convinced the Kaiser and the army that the Bolsheviks’ leader, Lenin, who was living in exile in Switzerland, should be smuggled back into Russia.[15] On April 2 Count Brockdorff-Rantzau wrote to the German Foreign Office that they should smuggle Lenin into Russia with a lot of money “in order to create… the greatest possible chaos. We should do all we can… to exacerbate the differences between the moderate and extremist parties, because we have the greatest possible interest in the latter gaining the upper hand”.[16]

     On April 16 Lenin returned to Russia in the famous sealed train and immediately published his “April theses” demanding an end to the war and all power to the Soviets. However, his time had not yet come…

     The removal of the “annexationist” Guchkov and Milyukov left the government in the hands of a group of leftist Masons: Kerensky (the link with the Petrograd Soviet), Nekrasov, Konovalov, Tereshchenko and Efremov. Together with the Soviet, they immediately passed a series of laws: political prisoners and revolutionaries were amnestied, trade unions were recognized, an eight-hour day for workers was introduced, the replacement of the Tsarist police by a “people’s militia”, full civil and religious freedoms, the abolition of the death penalty and the removal of all restrictions on the Jews. “In a breath-taking reversal,” writes Adam Tooze, “Russia, formerly the autocratic bubear of Europe, was remaking itself as the freest, most democratic country on earth.”[17]

     In order to gain the support of the Soviet, as Douglas Smith writes, the Provisional Government “had to agree to eight conditions, including amnesty for all political prisoners; freedom of speech, press, and assembly; and the abolition of all restrictions based on class, religion, and nationality… The new government also agreed to immediately abolish the police, the Okhrana, and the Corps of Gendarmes. This step, together with the dissolution of the tsarist provincial bureaucracy, was to have fatal consequences, for without new institutions to take their place, the Provisional Government was left with no means to effectively govern the country at the very moment it was descending into ever greater disorder…”[18]

     This orgy of liberal freedoms – accompanied by an orgy of violence throughout the country - earned the government the plaudits, not only of deadly enemies of Tsarism such as the Jewish banker Jacob Schiff in New York, but also of the western governments, whose democratic prejudices blinded them to the fact that the revolution was turning Russia from their most faithful ally into their deadliest enemy...

     As time passed and the chaos spread throughout the country, it became clear that neither the Provisional Government, nor even the Soviets, nor even a coalition between the two on a pro-war platform, would be able to control the revolutionary masses, who wanted peace at any price with the Germans abroad and the most radical social revolution at home. Of all the parties represented in the Soviets, it was only the Bolsheviks (for the soldiers and workers) and the Left Social Revolutionaries (for the peasants) who understood this, who had their fingers on the nation’s revolutionary pulse…

     Anarchy was the order of the day, and the only “justice” was imposed by lynchings. Thus Gorky claimed to have seen 10,000 cases of summary justice in 1917 alone.[19] The Church suffered particularly in this period, with the killing of many priests…

     Meanwhile, the Justice Minister Kerensky was visiting the troops. On May 13 he came to Podgaytsy, and Sister Florence witnessed his speech: “He spoke for about twenty minutes, but time seemed to stand still. His main theme was freedom; that great, mystical Freedom which had come to Russia. His words were often interrupted by wild applause, and, when he pointed out that the war must, at all costs, continued to a victorious end, they acclaimed him to the echo. ‘You will fight to a victorious end!’ he adjured them. ‘We will!’ the soldiers shouted as one man. ‘You will drive the enemy off Russian soil!’ ‘We will!’ they shouted again with boundless enthusiasm. ‘You, free men of a Free Country; you will fight for Russia, your Mother-Country. You will go into battle with joy in your hearts!’ ‘We are free men,’ they roared. ‘We will follow you into battle. Let us go now! Let us go now!’

     “When he left, they carried him on their shoulders to his car. They kissed him, his uniform, his car, the ground on which he walked. Many of them were on their knees praying; others were weeping. Some of them cheering; others singing patriotic songs. To the accompaniment of this hysterical outburst of patriotic fervor, Kerensky drove away…”[20]

     The soldiers had been promised that the Offensive (originally planned under Tsar Nicholas) would not long be delayed. But time passed, the order did not come, discipline collapsed, desertions began… Then came the Bolshevik agitators who harangued the troops with a new message: surrender! Farmborough describes one such meeting: “It was a most extraordinary meeting! Never, in our wildest dreams did we imagine that we should listen to such an outpouring of treachery. We sat in a group among the trees, surrounded on all sides by soldiers. Some of our hospital Brothers were there and I caught sight of several of our transport drivers.

    “The man who had come to speak to the soldiers had an ordinary face and was dressed in ordinary Russian clothes; dark trousers and a dark shirt, buttoned on the left and worn outside his trousers, with a black belt around the waist. His face was serious and pale, but he smiled and nodded once or twice to one or another of the audience, as though he recognized friends. He spoke for a time about Russia, her vast territory, her wealth and the many overlords who, possessing enormous estates and resources, were revered on account of their riches throughout the western world. Then he described the impoverished peasantry who, unschooled, uncared for and half-starved, were eking out a miserable existence by tilling and cultivating the land belonging to those same overlords. War had burst upon Russia and enemies had invaded her territory, and who were the men who had sacrificed themselves to fight the ruthless invaders and drive them off Russian soil! Not the wealthy overlords, not the despotic land-owners; no! – they were safely installed in their fortress-homes. It was those downtrodden countrymen who had been roped in in their thousands, in their millions, to stem the tide of invasion; when they had been killed, others had been quickly collected and sent to replace them. There had been no end to the slaughter and sacrifice of the Russian peasant. Enemy guns had devoured them daily, hourly; every minute of the day and night, the heavy guns had feasted on them and every minute new recruits were being seized and thrust like fodder into the voracious jaws of the enemy’s cannon. But now a tremendous even had taken place! The Tsar – that arch-potentate, that arch-tyrant – had been dethroned and dismissed. Russia had been pronounced a free country! – the Russian citizens a free people! Freedom had come at last to the downtrodden people of Russia.

     “Our doctors were moving restlessly. They were, as always, in officers’ uniform. I wondered if they were thinking it was high time to leave, but they stayed. Undoubtedly, it was the wisest thing to do. I glanced around. Most of the soldiers were young and raw, inexperienced and impressionable; all of them drawn from far-off corners of what, until recently, had been known as the Russian Empire. What easy prey they would be for seditious guile! New ideas could so readily take hold of their gullible minds and a cunning speaker would soon be aware that he could sway them this way and that with his oratory.

     “The speaker was harping on the theme of freedom. Freedom, he declared, was a possession so great, so precious, one dared not treat it lightly. But war was an enemy of freedom, because it destroyed peace, and without peace there could be no freedom. It was up to the Russian soldier to do all in his power to procure peace. And the best and quickest way to bring about a guaranteed peace was to refuse to fight. War could not be fought if there were no soldiers to fight! War was never a one-sided operation! Then, when peace had at last come to Russia, freedom could be enjoyed. The free men of Free Russia would own their own land. The great tracts of privately-owned territory would be split up and divided fairly among the peasantry. There would be common ownership of all properties and possessions. Once the Russian soldier had established peace in his homeland, he would reap benefits undreamt of. Peace above all else! Down with war 

     “The soldiers were all astir; they were whispering, coughing, muttering. But there all in full accord with the orator; he held them in his hand! Their stolid faces were animated and jubilant. ‘Tovarishchi! You free men of Free Russia! You will demand peace!’ ‘We will!’ they shouted in reply. ‘You will assert your rights as free Russian citizens!’ ‘We will assert our rights,’ they echoed with one voice. ‘You will never allow yourselves to be pushed into the trenches to sacrifice your lives in vain!’ ‘Never!’ they roared in unison…”[21]

     The success of the Bolsheviks’ propaganda against the war deprived the army of the minimum discipline required for any successful offensive. In the event, while General Alexeyev calculated that the losses from the July offensive would be about 6000, they turned out to be 400,000.[22]

     “The key to Russia’s military defeat,” writes Niall Ferguson, “was the huge number of surrenders in that year. Overall, more than half of total Russian casualties were accounted for by men who were taken prisoner.”[23] An offensive that had been designed by Kerensky and the liberals to bolster the state by bringing all classes together on a patriotic wave ended by opening the path to the final destruction of the state.

     The offensive was crushed, and on September 3 the Germans entered Riga…

     Nobody was more saddened by the Russian rout than the imprisoned Tsar Nicholas, who had abdicated precisely in order to avoid civil strife and thereby guarantee the army’s successful offensive. “In the words of the children’s tutor, Pierre Gilliard, this caused the Emperor ‘great grief’. As always, however, Nicholas’s optimism struggled against bad news. ‘I get a little hope from the fact that in our country people love to exaggerate. I can’t believe that the army at the front has become as bad as they say. It couldn’t have disintegrated in just two months to such a degree.’”[24]


     On July 17 military units around Petrograd marched into the centre of the city, demanding an end to the war. The Bolsheviks had not led this “semi-insurrection”, as Trotsky called it, but now they assumed the leadership of it, setting up a separate government by the Bolshevized sailors of Kronstadt. But the insurrection failed, the mutinous soliders were suppressed (but not disarmed), 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…[25]

     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.[26]

     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!”[27] 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.

     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.”[28]

     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’.”[29]

     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”.[30] 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.”[31] 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…”[32]

     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 and fled to the West, never to return. A week before his death he said to an acquaintance: “My own children are ashamed of me. They say that I have entered into history as the father of ‘Kerenshchina’. Forgive me and forget me. I destroyed Russia…”

     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.”[33] 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…”[34]

     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…’”[35]

     “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…”[36]

     As just one example of how the Bolsheviks were prepared to destroy even the most important and essential leaders of the nation, we may consider the beating to death by revolutionary soldiers of the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, Nikolai Nikolaievich Dukhonin, on December 3, 1917, in Mogilev. The lynching was watched with indifference by Krylenko, who the previous day had announced that he was taking Dukhonin’s place and that Dukhonin was to be sent to Petrograd at the disposal of the Council of People’s Commissars. The body was mocked and mutilated, and it was not until two years later that Dukhonin’s wife was able to obtain it for burial…

     “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.”[37]

     In the elections to the Constituent Assembly, 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%.[38]  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’.”[39] 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’.”[40] 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…


March 27 / April 9, 2019.



[1] Many years later Milyukov wrote: “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.” (in  G. Katkov, Fevral’skaia Revoliutsia (The February Revolution), Paris: YMCA Press, 1977, p. 3700.

[2] Smith, The Russian Revolution. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 18-20.

[3] Solonevich, in “Ot Ipatievskogo Monastyria do Doma Ipatievskogo” (From the Ipatiev Monastery to the Ipatiev House), Pravoslavnie Monastyri (Orthodox Monasteries), 29, 2009, p. 10.

[4] Farmboroush, Nurse at the Russian Front. A Diary 1914-1918, London: Blue Club Associates, 1974, p. 260

[5] Farmborough, op. cit., p. 261.

[6] Tooze, “365 Days that Shook the World”, Prospect, January, 2017, pp. 26-27.

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

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

[9] Mglinsky, “Grekhi russkoj intelligentsii” (The Sins of the Russian Intelligentsia), Staroe Vremia (Old Times), 1923; in Prince N.D. Zhevakov, Vospominania (Reminiscences), Moscow, 1993. Zhevakhov, who was assistant over-procurator during the February Revolution, comments on these words: “If Milyukov, who took the closest participation in the overthrow of Tsarist Power in Russia, could talk like this, then what was it like in reality! ‘Things were no better in other departments. Everywhere complete chaos reigned, for none of the departmental bosses, nor the government as a whole, had any definite, systematically realizable plan. They broke down everything that was old, they broke it down out of a spectral fear of a return to the old. Without thinking of tomorrow, with a kind of mad haste, they broke down everything that the whole Russian people is now beginning to sorrow over…’ (Staroe Vremia, December 18/31, 1923, N 13).” (op. cit.).

[10] “Archbishop Vitaly Maximenko”, Orthodox Life, March-April, 2010, p. 15.

[11] Figes, op. cit., pp. 347-348.

[13] Shevtsova, “Russia’s Love Affair with Germany”,, The American Interest, August 27, 2015.

[14] Ferguson, The Square and the Tower, London: Penguin, 2018, p. 213, note.

[15] Huw Strachan, The First World War, London: Pocket Books, 2006, p. 256.

[16] Brockdorff-Rantzau, in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, p. 726.

[17] Tooze, The Deluge, London: Penguin, 2014, p. 69.

[18] Smith, Former Persons: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy, London: Macmillan, 2012, p. 73.

[19] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, London: Pimlico, 1997, p. 400.

[20] Farmborough, op. cit., pp. 269-270.

[21] Farmborough, op. cit., pp. 309-311.

[22] Orlando Figes, op. cit., p. 408.

[23] Ferguson, The Pity of War, 1914-1918, London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 368. Prisoners of war as a percentage of total casualties in the war were 51.8% for Russia, as opposed to 9.0% for Germany and 6.7% for Britain (op. cit., p. 369).

[24] Lieven, Nicholas II, p. 236.

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

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

[27] Kornilov, in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 727.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[37] Tooze, op. cit., p. 84.

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

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

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

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company