(POWER TO THE SOVIETS – continued)

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The Bolshevik Coup, November 1917

The rising was scheduled to coincide with a meeting in Petrograd of the All Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Trotsky, as Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, was determined to make the coup appear as a defense of the revolution that overthrew the tsar and as a defense against an attempt by the Provisional Government to disperse the Congress of Soviets then in session. The word coup may be a misnomer. Lenin saw himself as no "putschist." A coup such as a faction of military officers might attempt was not what he believed gave a movement power. A workers' movement in Lenin's view could not take and hold power without overwhelming and broad-based support. As Lenin saw it, the Soviets were taking power and that power was legitimately theirs.

The coup occurred in the early morning hours on November 7. Red Guards (soldiers with Bolshevik sympathies) tried to take control of the city’s biggest newspapers, but they failed, finding the offices well guarded by armed men. At one o’clock in the morning, armed revolutionary soldiers and sailors – the latter from the Kronstadt naval base – occupied without difficulty the city’s telegraph exchange. At 1:35 in the morning, revolutionaries occupied the post office. At 5 a.m., a revolutionary force took control of the telephone exchange. At dawn, a Bolshevik force surrounded the state bank. At 10 in the morning armed revolutionaries surrounded what had been the tsar’s Winter Palace, which now held the offices of the Provisional Government – the biggest target for the revolutionaries. And the revolutionaries took control of the local train station.

So far, hardly any blood had been shed. Life in the city during the day was limping along as it had during previous days. People in their homes and on the street took little notice of the coup. But Prime Minister Kerensky noticed what was happening and fled to the front in search of an army. It was the first of the ten days that the US journalist referred to in his work titled "Ten Days that Shook the World."

The All Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies opened that day in Petrograd with the declaration that the Provisional Government was deposed and that all power now belonged to the Soviets. Moderate socialists (Mensheviks) at the congress spoke against the coup, demanded negotiations with the Provisional Government and accused the Bolsheviks of a conspiracy and of failing to consult with other factions and parties in the Soviets. They were hooted down, and they walked out, with Trotsky announcing from the podium that they belonged to the garbage heap of history.

Petrograd Soviet

Petrograd Soviet, March 12, 1917, click to enlarge

People in Petrograd whose opinions were not represented in the Petrograd Soviet appeared indifferent, believing perhaps that matters as they were before the coup could hardly get worse. It is estimated that about 10,000 armed men in Petrograd supported the Bolsheviks and that the rest of the soldiers in Petrograd – perhaps 230,000 – were neutral. In Petrograd were also 15,000 or so military officers who had withdrawn from military affairs, largely for their own protection.

Also organizing no challenge to the Bolshevik coup were the moderate Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). Their political party represented peasants. They had been a part of the coalition that made up the Provisional Government, and for the time being they were without influence.

On November 8, Lenin gave his keynote address to the Soviet delegates. "We shall now proceed to the construction of the socialist order," he stated, and he was wildly applauded. He announced that Russia was now out of the war, and delegates roared their approval. Rather than the old Bolshevik position that all land should be socialized, Lenin announced a land decree that suited his allies among the peasant delegates. His land decree called for peasant proprietorship.

Then the Congress of Soviets put forth resolutions that Lenin had had a hand in creating. No compensation was to be given to landowners whose lands were confiscated. All private ownership of land was abolished in the sense that rich peasants, industrialists, churches and monasteries could no longer consider land, livestock or buildings as theirs by law. A resolution was put forward that defended "soldier’s rights" and enforced "complete democratization of the army." Industry was put under "workers' control." It was decreed that necessary means were to be taken to supply bread to the cities and articles of necessity to the villages. All local power would be transferred to workers’ and peasants’ soviets (councils), and these Soviets were to be responsible for enforcing the decisions made by the delegates to the Congress of Soviets. Anti-Jewish pogroms or incidents were declared illegal. And all nationalities that had been a part of the tsar's empire were to enjoy freedom of self-determination.

The Congress of Soviets called upon the soldiers in the trenches to be "watchful and steadfast." It called upon the nations still at war to make peace. And in an attack on imperialism it called on the nations of the world to abolish secret diplomacy. It promised that the Soviet government would conduct all negotiations in the light of day before the people. It promised to publish all of the secret treaties to which Russia had been a party. The Congress voted on these declarations and passed them unanimously. Lenin assured the delegates that democracy would reign. And he said that all decisions would be subject to the approval or modification by the Constituent Assembly that was scheduled to open in a few weeks.

The Congress of Soviets remained in session four more days, during which the eight-hour work-day was decreed. And it was decreed that all newspapers hostile to the revolution would be closed – because, it was said, newspapers were under the control of wealthy persons who should be prevented from "poisoning and confusing" the minds of the masses. Meanwhile, on November 9, Moscow had come under the control of its soviet, and revolutionaries were beginning to take power in the name of the soviets in other Russian cities.


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