The 1917 October Revolusion
How the Bolsheviks Seized Power
Part 4: The New Day Dawns
Revolutionary Worker #934, November 30, 1997
Lenin's midnight arrival at Smolny galvanized the insurrection. Now the offensive began in earnest. The seizure of vital points of the city of Petrograd proceeded swiftly and methodically. At 1:25 a.m. the General Post Office fell to a unit of Red Guards from Vyborg and the Baltic shipyards, revolutionary soldiers of the Kexholm Regiment and a detachment of revolutionary sailors.
At 2 a.m. two strong detachments made up of Red Guards and revolutionary soldiers captured the Nikolayevsky and Baltic Railway stations. This was critical if the insurgents were to prevent the arrival of government reinforcements from out of town. When resistance was attempted at the telegraph office of the Nikolayevsky station, the railwaymen Red Guards joined the detachment, cleared the office of counterrevolutionaries and put the ringleaders under arrest. The railway depot and the workshops near the American Bridge were also captured and put under guard. At roughly the same time other revolutionary detachments captured the city's electric power station.
At about 3 a.m. revolutionary soldiers in the Pavlovsky Regiment threw a cordon across key streets near the Winter Palace, and held up a carload of cadets leaving the Palace to seek assistance. At 3:30, after sharp struggle aboard ship, the crew of the Aurora dropped anchor at the Nikolayevsky Bridge and occupied it for the insurgents, reopening it to traffic and dispersing the cadets who had been guarding it.
At 6 a.m. a detachment of 40 men from the Marine Guards in conjunction with men from the Kexholm Regiment (again) penetrated the State Bank by way of the guardroom and occupied it. Throughout the early morning the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC)* directed forces to every vital center and key tactical point. The number of these attacks and their spread-out character made it difficult for the government to know where or how to defend against them, at least right away. And the ways in which the rebels targetted the government's capacity to communicate and to move troops and supplies set the enemy reeling and helped to keep the initiative in the people's hands.
The initiative in war is life-or-death. Mao has written that "the initiative means an army's freedom of action. Freedom of action is the very life of an army and once it is lost, the army is close to defeat or destruction."
Even a force inferior in arms can, through seizing the initiative, force its better-armed enemy into a passive position. One main way to gain the initiative is through surprise. Despite the clashes of October 24, the government forces were evidently not prepared when the Bolsheviks went over to the offensive and launched fierce attacks on a number of vital government positions.
The insurgent proletarians grabbed the initiative through boldness and surprise; they not only crippled the enemy's ability to crush the insurrection but they created space for much broader masses of people to come into action, to become part of the "armed people."
By mid-morning the government forces were holed up in the strongholds of the Winter Palace and the Headquarters of the Petrograd Military Area. Kerensky fled the city under U.S. and British protection to rally loyal troops; meanwhile workers flooded into the streets. At 10 a.m., the MRC issued the following manifesto to the citizens of Russia:
"The Provisional Government has been overthrown. State power has been transferred to the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies--the Military Revolutionary Committee--which is at the head of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison.
"The success of the cause for which the people have been fighting--the immediate offer of a democratic peace, the abolition of landlordism, the institution of workers' control of industry and the formation of a Soviet government--is ensured.
"Long Live the workers', soldiers' and peasants' revolution."
It was signed by Lenin and telegraphed immediately to all the industrial centers; this in turn sparked further risings. Lenin now pressed hard for offensive action to seize the Winter Palace and arrest the Provisional Government.
Attack on the Winter Palace
Red Guards, along with revolutionary soldiers and sailors, now converged on the Winter Palace. The government defenders inside attempted several sorties against the insurgents, hoping to break out, but were quickly driven back. They then settled into defense, aiming to hold out until government troops arrived from the front.
As masses streamed to the Palace, Lenin's hoped-for "gigantic superiority of forces" began to take shape. Late afternoon turned to evening, and Red Guard units began to sally forth against the palace, at first only to be captured and disarmed as they burst in. At 5 p.m. the defenders refused the first in a series of surrender ultimatums from the MRC. By 6:30 the Headquarters of the Petrograd Military Area fell to the revolutionaries, thus drawing the noose on the Palace tighter still. The streets of the city were now totally in the hands of the revolution--John Reed** noted that on his way to the Winter Palace patrols at the corners "stopped all passersby--and the composition of these patrols was interesting, for in command of the regular troops was invariably a Red Guard."
Still the streams of Red Guards and armed workers and soldiers flowed toward the Palace. Skirmishes occurred with increasing frequency, but the open square in front of the Palace rendered the revolutionary attackers vulnerable to firepower from within. Only a major and concentrated assault, bringing to bear all the strength of the revolutionaries, would take the Palace.
At 11 p.m., the battleship Aurora and the Fortress of Peter and Paul (both now in revolutionary hands) began firing artillery salvos on the Palace. The insurgents stepped up their sorties against the defenders, gradually gaining ground under severe fire; some finally penetrated the Palace itself without getting seized. At last, a little after one in the morning, the signal for the necessary and massive assault rang out. A human torrent surged through the Palace gates and porches and into the building. The proletariat had, after all, brought its "gigantic superiority of forces into play." And once in play, rather than falling into the temptation to (safely) "wait it out," the insurgents had fought the battle as a battle of quick decision. By 2 a.m. the Palace fell. The enemy had been crushed.
Reed noted that "in the light that streamed out of the Winter Palace windows, I could see that the first 200 or 300 men were Red Guards, with only a few scattered soldiers." He also observed that the party's commissars, who had raced about throughout the entire day preparing the offensive and rallying the revolutionary forces, now took care to exercise discipline in the Winter Palace, acting to stop looting and indiscriminate acts of revenge. A bourgeois military writer once observed that there is a crowd waiting to burst out of every army--meaning that no matter how well-trained an army might be, there is always a threat that it might chaotically disintegrate under fire. In this case, the commissars of the Bolshevik party had forged a "crowd" into a courageous and disciplined army, one which had risen to take the offensive and defeat the seasoned troops of the established army in a two-day insurrection.
As the Winter Palace fell at 2 a.m., the just-assembled Congress of Soviets adopted the historic proclamation "To All Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants." The new power had come into being!
The manifesto proclaimed that "Backed by the will of the vast majority of the workers, soldiers and peasants, backed by the victorious uprising of the workers and the garrison which has taken place in Petrograd, the Congress takes power into its own hands." The manifesto went on to state the new power's stance towards the most pressing issues of the day: the war, famine and land.
The new regime elaborated its program the next day. This was crucial to consolidating what had been won and preparing to push out and expand the new power. It announced to the world the goals of the new regime and the immediate agenda of the revolutionary power. The Congress moved to vest all power in the Soviets, to abolish capital punishment at the front, to release all revolutionary prisoners and members of the rural land committees.*** And it ordered Kerensky's arrest.
On the question of peace, the new Soviet government called for immediate negotiations for "an immediate peace without annexations (i.e., without the seizure of foreign lands or the forcible incorporation of foreign nations) and without indemnities." It offered to negotiate without conditions. At the same time, the new power declared that all secret diplomacy would cease and promised to publish the secret treaties between the imperialist powers. It ended by calling for an immediate three-month armistice.
Next Lenin put forward the decree on land. The property of the landlords was abolished without compensation and the landed estates, along with church lands, were put at the disposal of the land committees (made up of the peasants) in the countryside.
These two decrees in particular--on peace and land--provided the basis for the urban-based proletariat to make allies of Russia's massive peasantry. At one stroke the proletarian power had moved to solve the most agonizing problems of the people. But the Congress passed other important measures as well--democratizing the army, instituting workers' control of industry, and upholding the right of the oppressed nations of the Russian empire (nearly 50 percent of the population) to self-determination. The Congress finished its business by setting up the form of Soviet government--a workers' and peasants' government to be known as the Council of People's Commissars. A 101-member Central Executive Committee, made up of a majority of Bolsheviks, was elected. All this was accomplished by 5:15 in the morning on October 27.
The next day witnessed the beginning organization of the counterrevolution, in the form of the Committee for Salvation. At the same time, the Red Guard rallied to take on 1,000 battle-seasoned troops on their way to invade Petrograd; they defeated the reactionaries in the bloody battle of Pulkhovo Heights. This "sealed" the victory of the insurrection and was extremely significant--for the first time the proletariat had not only marshalled an army, but marched out of the familiar city on the offensive. Meanwhile, around the country, insurrections either continued or erupted in key cities.
That evening at the Congress, representatives of the reformist parties of the left all rose to oppose the new regime. They issued terrible threats and dire prophecies --all to no avail.
Then Reed describes the scene:
"...Now Lenin, gripping the edge of the reading stand, letting his little winking eyes travel over the crowd as he stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long-rolling ovation, which lasted several minutes. When it finished, he said simply, `We shall now proceed to construct the Socialist order!' Again that overwhelming human roar."
The 3-1/2-year civil war to finally win the fruits of the revolution--fought against home-grown reactionaries as well as the armies of 14 imperialist powers (including the U.S.)--would now begin. The world would never--and will never--be the same.
* The Military Revolutionary Committee, or MRC, was created by the Petrograd Soviet to coordinate proletarian fighting forces and those troops who supported the revolution. (See Part 2 of this series.)
** John Reed was a revolutionary American journalist who wrote the classic eyewitness account of the revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. Inspired by his experience, Reed became a communist and worked to form the first communist party in the U.S. before his early death in 1920 at the age of 33.
*** Beginning in late spring, peasants had organized themselves into rural land committees and had taken to seizing the estates of feudal lords. In response, the Kerensky government had thrown many of the land committee members into jail.
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