(POWER to the SOVIETS – continued)

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POWER to the SOVIETS (2 of 6)

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Conditions for the Bolshevik Revolution

After the political revolution that overthrow the tsar in February 1917, Russia's new Provisional Government abolished the death penalty and ended discrimination based on religious or ethnic affiliation. The government assured freedom of association and assembly. The new government promised Poland that after the war ended it would be independent. Finland – which had been ruled by Russia’s tsar – was guaranteed restoration of its constitutional rights. And the government proclaimed that full civil rights were extended to Russia’s soldiers.

But across Russia police departments and the hated tsarist government administrators were not being replaced. Few people were paying attention to laws. In the countryside, deserters from the military and people released from prisons were leading land seizures and attacking isolated estates. Peasants were cutting down trees for wood or stealing seed grain. And peasant soldiers were still deserting, rushing home to get their share.

Lenin disguise

Lenin shaved and wearing a wig is forced into hiding from the Provisional Government.

Meanwhile, the Wilson administration in the US told Russia’s Provisional Government that aid would be given only if it pursued a new offensive. The regime laid plans for an offensive in July 1917. Russia’s Eastern Orthodox clergy was agreeable. They were looking forward to the defeat of Germany's ally Turkey, and looking to win back Constantinople for Eastern Orthodox Christianity – lost to Islam in 1453.

The Provisional Government's Minister of War, Alexander Kerensky, was among those talking about "lessons" of history. He believed that the overthrow of the tsar made possible a new morale among Russia’s military, as had happened among the French during its revolution and when ancient Athens had become a democracy. Circumstances were working against Russia that differed from those faced by revolutionary France or the democracy of ancient Athens. His history by analogy was specious, but Kerensky displayed no doubts. He made speeches to the troops, calling them his comrades in revolution and telling them that now they could turn things around against the enemy on the Eastern Front. In preparing for what is known today as the Kerensky offensive, Alexander Kerensky tried to restore discipline in the army, and this turned some soldiers against the new government.

Despite the history lesson, Russia’s armies were still no match for Germany’s defensive line in the east. The offensive began on July 1. It began with gains against the Austrians, but it was stopped and began falling apart unter a German counter offensive. Kerensky ordered regiments in Petrograd to the front to help the offensive. The failure feuled anti-war sentiments. Some soldiers in Petrograd resisted and took to the streets. Their revolt was joined by 6,000 sailors from the nearby Kronstadt naval base, and it was joined by industrial workers. The Bolsheviks tried to make themselves leaders of what has been described as a spontaneous rising, and the demonstrators repeated the Bolshevik’s call for "all power to the Soviets." The Provisional Government found this an opportune time to announce evidence they had of Bolshevik dealings with the Germans, which stunned those soldiers still interested in defending the motherland. What had not happened for the tsar happened for the Provisional Government: troops loyal to the government entered Petrograd and quelled the rising there. Numerous Bolsheviks were arrested, and some soldiers from Petrograd were sent to the front. The office of the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, was wrecked, and an order went out for the arrest of Lenin, who went into hiding.

The July Days uprising was ended by July 20, but also by then so too was Kerensky's offensive. The Germans began a slow advance that appeared to the Provisional Government as a threat to Petrograd. On July 21, Kerensky was elevated to Prime Minister. By the 23rd the Russians had retreated 150 miles, and it is said that "The only limit to the German advance was the lack of the logistical means to occupy more territory." (Wikipedia). Kerensky wanted to make a separate peace with Germany, but he yielded to objections from the United States, Britain and France.

In the weeks that followed, Kerensky began sending forces into the countryside to restore order there – a reasonable endeavor for a Prime Minister, except that it needed more manpower than he was willing or able to apply. Then Kerensky accused one of his generals, Lvar Kornilov, of plotting a coup. Kerensky feared a general overthrowing the Russian revolution. In late August he charged Kornilov with treason. Kornilov, who had been loyal and somewhat progressive, was outraged by the charge and responded by making true Kerensky’s accusation: he called for the people of Russia to rally behind him to save the country from Kerensky and the Germans.

Some who believed that Kerensky was not using strong enough force to reestablish order sided with Kornilov. Prime Minister Kerensky sought as much help as he could get from those who supported the revolution against the Tsar, including the Bolsheviks. On September 4 his government released Bolsheviks from prison, and it released from prison an ally of the Bolsheviks, Leon , a skilled writer and orator, a revolutionary who had been a leading figure in the popular rising in 1905.

Leon Trotsky in 1918

Leon Trotsky in 1918

Trotsky and the Bolsheviks armed all of those they could who were sympathetic to preventing a counter-revolution. Kerensky’s government arrested prominent generals for conspiring with Kornilov. Military officers abandoned any support they had had for the Provisional Government and Kerensky. Kornilov sent an army of Cossacks under General Krymov toward Petrograd. Workers and soldiers met Krymov’s army and talked many of them into abandoning their drive on Petrograd. Defeated, Kornilov and some other generals were arrested and jailed, and General Krymov killed himself with his revolver.

By now opinion in the Soviets had shifted to the Bolshevik position, to favoring an immediate end of the war and the taking of governmental power away from the Provisional Government.  The swing in sentiment in the Petrograd Soviet elevated Leon Trotsky to chairman. On September 18 the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Moscow Soviet. And on September 23 they won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet.

Still in hiding, Lenin was aware that the Provisional Government had lost effective power. With the Bolsheviks having majority support in the Petrograd Soviet, it was time, he believed, to take power on behalf of the soviets. Bolshevik leaders around Lenin, namely Kamenev and Zinoviev, feared that such a move would be premature and a disaster. Trotsky supported Lenin. Lenin won enough of his fellow Bolshevik leaders to his side to swing Party organizers into action. Joining the Bolsheviks and Trotsky were their allies in the Soviets, an agrarian political party favoring social revolution known as the Left Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party. On October 19, the All-Russian conference of factory and shop committees resolved to support "All power to the Soviets." The move to what is called the November revolution, Russia second revolution in 1917, was set.


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