In the capital, Petrogtrad, the fall from power by Tsar Nicholas was greeted by limousines and military vehicles filled with cheering soldiers, workers and barely dressed women were driven around town with flags flying and horns honking. Newspapers were available that offered every kind of opinion. A pamphlet circulated describing the former empress, Alexandra, as having had a lesbian relationship and an orgy with her spiritual advisor, the now dead monk Rasputin. Meetings and speeches were to be described as "everywhere," including among prostitutes.
The tsar fell from power in mid-March. On April 16, at night, Vladimir Ilych Lenin arrived in Petrograd from Switzerland with numerous other exiles who were returning under the amnesty that had been announced by the Provisional Government.
Lenin's acid wit, his voracious reading, his energy as a writer and as an organizer had allowed him to rise to prominence among Russia's socialists. He was the leader of the Bolshevik wing of Russia's socialist movement, a small organization dedicated to social revolution. Lenin believed that the world would be better off without investors – without capitalists and landlords. In keeping with Marxism, Lenin and his Bolsheviks saw organized factory workers as the base of their support and revolution. In 1914, Bolshevik activists were beaten by factory workers while handing out leaflets against the war, but that had changed.
The engine that brought Lenin to Petrograd, in a museum – photo attribution James G. Howes, 1998.
In April 1917, Lenin and others arrived in Petrograd on a train that had passed through Germany to Finland – the feasible route for them given the refusal of the Allies to let them pass over their territory. Italy, France and Britain had not wanted to give them passage to Russia, fearing they would damage the war effort in Russia. Germany allowed Lenin passage interested in Lenin contributing to Russia quitting the war. (arrival enactment, YouTube)
Bolsheviks crowded in and around the Finland Station in Petrograd, owned and operated by Finnish railways. After accepting their cheers, Lenin scolded them. The Bolsheviks had been working with others in the soviets, wishing to be identified as a part of the revolution that overthrew the tsar. Lenin told them that they should stand apart from others who supported the revolution, that they should stop supporting the Provisional Government and should begin advocating socialist revolution – the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. The stunned Bolsheviks thought that Lenin was out of touch because of his having been abroad.
Lenin had the same view toward the war as did many socialists in the United States, including Eugene Debs. He believed that "a handful of exploiters" were responsible for the war – as if Franz Joseph, Tsar Nicholas, Wilhelm and various military leaders had all been puppets of the capitalists. The capitalists, said Lenin, were destroying the peoples of Europe for the sake of profits.
From what he saw in Russia, Lenin concluded that the road to power was through the soviets (councils) because that was where the masses were. He was not, as they said in his time, a putschist or a Blanquist: he did not believe that revolutions were made by some clique leading a successful coup. He saw coups as the work of counter-revolutionaries trying to keep the ruling class in power. He believed, as had Marx and Engles, that the revolution would be a massive class phenomena – the working class.
Lenin's strategy of not supporting the Provisional Government gained more credence when, on April 18, Russia's Foreign Minister Milyukov informed Britain and France that Russia intended to pursue the war and looked forward to the annexation of Ottoman territories. At odds with the Provisional Government were the soviets, which supported defense of the homeland – a defensive war – while Lenin was against the war entirely.
In April, Scandinavian, Dutch and Russian socialists were organizing a peace conference to be held in Stockholm. The British, French, Belgian and Russian governments opposed the conference. So too did President Wilson of the United States. Lenin was opposed to his Bolsheviks supporting or attending such a conference. Lenin believed that those socialists and labor activists supporting the conference were insufficiently revolutionary. He wanted to build a rival workers' international. The warring powers helped him in this: they refused passports to anyone wanting to attend the Stockholm conference, and the conference never occurred.
Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd took up the slogans "Bread, Land, Peace" and "All power to the Soviets." When Petrograd’s First All-Russian Congress of the Workers’ and Soldier’s Soviets met on June 17, Lenin was there representing the Bolsheviks. Amid the speechmaking and arguing, Lenin announced that the Bolsheviks were ready to take power. This produced laughter from the predominately non-Bolshevik assembly. Lenin also announced that what Russia needed was the arrest of fifty to one hundred of the most substantial capitalists and to force them to reveal the clandestine intrigues that kept the Russian people at war and in misery. The blinders he said would then fall from the eyes of the masses and food shortages and inflation would disappear.
Hunger and other miseries were creating more followers for the Bolsheviks – the only revolutionary party that stood in opposition to the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks created their own private army, the Red Guard, which Lenin refused to subordinate to the Petrograd Soviet. And the Bolsheviks were conducting a propaganda campaign among the soldiers, including those at the front. They were distributing a newspaper free to the troops and advising soldiers to keep themselves armed. To pay for the distribution and perhaps some other expenses, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were secretly accepting money from German agents – as later described by the German foreign minister to Russia, Richard von Kühlman. The Bolsheviks did not support the German war effort any more than they supported Russia’s war effort, and they tried to distance themselves from the charge that they were German agents.
Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.