With the fall from power by Tsar Nicholas, the capital, Petrograd (St. Petersburg) became the freest city in Europe. 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 was circulating depicting the former Russian empress, Alexandra, from Germany, having a lesbian relationship and an orgy with her spiritual advisor, the now dead monk Rasputin. Meetings and speeches were "everywhere." Even thieves and prostitutes held meetings. In public there were bacchanal scenes of kissing, fondling and fornication.
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 provided by Russia's 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 rather than reforms. 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 as the source of future revolution. At the beginning of the war, Bolshevik activists were beaten by factory workers because of their lack of patriotism, but hostility toward the war among soldiers and workers had changed that.
Lenin and others had arrived in Petrograd after traveling 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, while Germany looked forward to their contributing to Russia quitting the war.
Bolsheviks crowded in and around the train station in Petrograd to greet their leader, Lenin. 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 councils – the soviets – 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 revolution was a mass phenomena.
Lenin's strategy of not supporting the Provisional government was given more credence when, on April 18, Russia's foreign minister, Milyukov, informed Britain and France that Russia intended to pursue the war to the inclusion of annexing Ottoman territories. The soviets were supporting defensive war, not imperial expansion, and Lenin was describing the war as imperialist.
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 responded to a shout from the floor by announcing that his party was ready to take power. This brought 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 to help pay this 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. They tried to keep a distance between themselves and the charge that they were German agents. And in their newspaper they advised soldiers to keep themselves armed.
Copyright © 2000-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.