Violence and Revolution in 1917

The revolutionary violence of 1917 paled in comparison to that on the fronts of the Great War.

Painting by Pyotr Ossovsky Leonid Li / Flickr

We live in a world of violence, and we cannot avoid treating it politically.

In 1917, the violence of war spread everywhere. Toward the end of his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

Is it not remarkable that those who talk most indignantly about the victims of social revolutions are usually the very ones who, if not directly responsible for the victims of the world war, prepared and glorified them, or at least accepted them?

Accounts put the number of military and civilian deaths during World War I between fifteen and eighteen million. In late 1917, one socialist doctor calculated that “the mad run of the chariot of death” had led to “6,364 deaths a day, 12,726 wounded and 6,364 disabled.” His precision is probably spurious, but his sense of scale is not. People died from the fighting itself and the starvation and disease that came with it.

The February Revolution broke out in week 135 of the war. October came in week 170. In the nearly 250 days in between — a time that some historians present as a period of revolutionary bloodshed, with perhaps some 2,500 deaths — a staggering 1.5 million or more may have died in Europe.

Fewer died on the Eastern fronts between February and October, but the death toll still topped 100,000. This relative peace largely came because the Russian troops had begun to melt away, sometimes shooting anyone who tried to stop them. Murders committed to escape death, to prevent others from dying: violence is a complex thing.

And it goes in different directions. In May 1917, Petrograd laundresses went on strike. They tried to force everyone out of their workplaces by pouring water on stoves and irons. Some laundry owners, in turn, used boiling water on the strikers, threatening them with hot irons, pokers, and even revolvers.

There is more, as no real revolution is ever bloodless. But much of this violence comes later, when the old order, disoriented at first, starts to fight back.

In 1917, the pattern of violence was modest compared to the brutality of World War I or the coming civil war. We can even find examples of revolutionaries acting generously toward their enemy — foolish acts, since those freed quickly joined the armed counterrevolution.

It is too simple to say “violence begets violence.” We do better by penetrating some of the myths about the revolution and its violence.

The Bloody Bloodless Revolution

The February Revolution seemed to draw the most widespread support, but it was extremely violent compared to the other events that year. Troops and police fired on crowds, and some in the crowds fired back. Soldiers shot at other soldiers.

Most accounts list the number of dead in Petrograd at some fifteen hundred, but they most likely underestimate the death toll. Those who fell in the service of the revolution were rewarded with the biggest mass memorial ever seen. Almost half the city — one million people — came out.

The old order had gone. Crowds mourned and celebrated with a newfound sense of brotherhood. Even today, we tend to see February through rose-tinted glasses, perhaps because the mood would change so quickly over the next few months.

The new provisional government — far to the left of the rest of the world — wanted to establish the most advanced form of liberal democracy imaginable, but they had to do so in the ruins of the old tsarist order.

Alexander Kerensky later wrote, “throughout the whole extent of the Russian land there existed not only no government power but literally not one policemen.” The prisons had been opened in February, not just political prisoners but thousands of criminals were released. People raided weapons stores.

The government tried to develop new policies, new institutions, and new organizations, including popular militias for keeping the peace. It offered amnesties, abolished the death penalty, and granted rights of assembly.

It also wanted to become a bridge between the haves and the have nots. Therein lay the problem: the elites wanted one kind of order and the people another. Just days after the tsar’s abdication, one officer wrote “They [the ordinary soldiers] think that things should get better for them, and they should be worse for us.” The two sides clashed over what counted as justice and order, and what kinds of force would be needed to achieve them.

By April, Prince L’vov, then prime minister, was issuing circulars that begged people to stop committing crimes. It is necessary, one read, “to put a stop to every manifestation of violence and robbery with the whole power of the law.” This included street robberies, but it also meant stopping the peasants from “robbing” the gentry of their land.

Establishing order was near impossible. Local pressures forced the new authorities to act — or not act — in ways that undermined Petrograd’s instructions. As late as October, only thirty-seven of European Russia’s fifty provinces even had the new militia police forces. Meanwhile, large sections of the army had grown restless.

A World Turned Upside Down

In the February days, one quick-thinking criminal robbed a house by declaring that he came from a revolutionary committee. Others soon followed his example. Crime rates rose everywhere.

By October, John Reed wrote, “the columns of the [Petrograd] newspapers were filled with accounts of the most audacious robberies and murders, and the criminals were unmolested.” People stopped carrying valuables and bolted their doors. Criminals joked that they now needed police protection because they were the only ones who had anything worth stealing.

The army’s collapse posed a bigger problem. Where it held together, it largely remained a force for order, but control slipped away from the provisional government and to the revolutionaries. Meanwhile, mass desertion produced serious violence as gangs of marauding soldiers tried to return home or survive on the margins of city life.

The bigger problem, however, was that the revolution had turned the world upside down. The old Russia of respect and deference had vanished. People had worn their military and civilian uniforms, their stripes and epaulettes, their buttons, braids, and ribbon bands everywhere. Now they couldn’t leave their houses without risking violence.

At first, the elite looked down on the unfolding events with a sense of wry amusement. “The revolution was understood by the lower orders as something in the nature of an Easter carnival,” wrote one contemporary, “servants for example, disappeared for whole days, promenaded with red ribbons, took rides in automobiles, came home in the morning only long enough to wash up and again went out for fun.”

But the mood changed when it seemed that the revolution would not stop. The masses no longer appeared resigned and patriotic, grateful even for crumbs. Now, gathered together in their dirty and ragged damp clothing, they started making demands. They grumbled, they coughed, they spat, they swore. Instead of a “patriotic myth,” said Trotsky, the people had become “an awful reality.”

You can sense the shifting mood in the way observers described ordinary people. The heroes of February were now depicted as an ignorant mob.

When Vladimir Nabokov, an elegant Constitutional Democrat, described the July Days in Petrograd, he wrote that the people had “the same insane, dumb beastlike faces which we all remembered from the February days.” They represented “an elemental flood” to be feared.

The privileged said, with no sense of irony, “do not do unto us as we did unto you.” When peasant communities seized land, they reallocated it on an equal basis. In some cases, they gave the former landowner a peasant share. Having watched the manor house burn, he likely saw this as a final act of humiliation. But to the peasants, it represented a gesture of natural justice.

When imprisoned officers complained about conditions at the Kronstadt fortress, their new jailers replied, “It is true that the prison buildings in Kronstadt are horrible, but these are the same prisons that were built by tsarism for us.”

Trotsky, whom the provisional government had imprisoned, was bemused when, in October, that government’s supporters begged him not hold the arrested ministers in the same places they had kept him. He allowed them house arrest for a time.

The 1917 revolution was not waged over abstract questions of law and order: people fought real battles over whose law and whose order would rule the country.

Whose Land?

The law emerges from social and political structures. One newspaper insisted that “the most elementary principles of society [are] personal security and respect for private property,” but a placard at a demonstration read, “the right to life is higher than the rights of private property.”

Nowhere did this clash become more acute than over the question of land ownership.

Most peasants believed that the gentry had used state power to take the land away from them. “Ownership of land, as property, is one of the most unnatural of crimes,” but “this crime is deemed a right according to human laws,” wrote one self-taught peasant. “The injustice of private land ownership is inevitably linked to the many injustices and evil deeds required for its protection.” Taking back the land became an act of restitution.

Some members of the provisional government’s local agencies shared this view, but the landlords, unsurprisingly, did not. In Petrograd, the government equivocated and promised legal land reform in the future. Radicals saw it differently.

“There is a basic contradiction between us and our opponents in the understanding of what is order and what is law,” said Lenin:

Until now, they thought that law and order was what suited the landlords and the bureaucrats, but we maintain that law and order is what suits the majority of the peasants. . . . The important thing for us is the revolutionary initiative; the laws should be the result of it. If you wait until the law is written, and do not yourselves develop revolutionary energy, you will get neither law nor land.

This belief called for a new, bottom-up legal system.

In The State and Revolution, Lenin expanded on this extraordinary claim. To deal with excesses and crime, he wrote:

A special apparatus for suppression is not necessary; this will be taken care of by the armed people themselves with the same simplicity and ease with which a crowd of civilised people even in contemporary society separates brawlers or does not permit violence against women.

Maxim Gorky disagreed, citing times he had seen people in peasant villages gladly join the violence, not least against women. Historians have largely sided with Gorky, paying strangely little attention to what this clash between the old and the new orders actually produced.

After February, new forces of order began to emerge. Soviets and factory committees grew in number and started organizing forces, however inadequately. At Kronstadt, which some saw as the embodiment of revolutionary brutishness, the soviet and committees closed brothels, banned public drunkenness, and even outlawed card playing.

Workers’ militias formed, too, separate from those that obeyed the provisional government. These militias spontaneously appeared in Petrograd and some other places. Perhaps with some exaggeration, Pravda claimed that, because of these groups, “hooliganism has vanished from the streets as dust blown away by storm winds.”

Toward the end of March, while the government was trying to create its own police force, workers established more Red Guard units, especially in Petrograd. Their numbers went up and down but surged in October. On the eve of the revolution, there may have been across Russia.

Young and inexperienced, though possibly more effective than the demoralized civic militia, these officers served as an example of the alternative order. “The press accused the militia of acts of violence, requisitions and illegal arrests,” wrote Trotsky:

It is indubitable that the militia did employ violence: it was created exactly for that. Its crime consisted, however, in resorting to violence in dealing with representatives of that class which was not accustomed to be the object of violence and did not want to get accustomed to it.

Revolutionaries called on pro-Bolshevik army units as well, and, in Petrograd, they played a key role in October.

The clash of worldviews appears in how these soldiers are described. The provisional government called them “unreliable,” but to those pushing the revolution forward, the only “unreliable units” were those still supporting the government.

Order From Below

In its search for order, the provisional government turned to violence. They made anti-war agitation at the front punishable by hard labor. Kerensky launched the June offensive in hopes of aiding the Allied war effort and encouraging domestic order, but many soldiers refused to fight. Then, in July, confused street demonstrations in Petrograd killed fifty-six people.

The government called the July Days an attempted coup. It arrested Trotsky and forced Lenin into hiding. The army reintroduced the death penalty at the front, but it carried out few executions because the troops themselves opposed them.

The upper classes began to see the commander-in-chief, General Kornilov, as a strong leader. When his gamble for power failed, the situation became even tenser. Land seizures were growing in the countryside, and the government deployed its few reliable troops to stop them.

The events in October contrasted sharply with the chaotic violence of February. Perhaps fifteen died in Petrograd, with another fifty or more wounded. The provisional government had become an empty shell. “We reek of decay,” one minister said. The violence was contained because of the new rising power — the soviet.

On Sunday, October 22, the February regime watched hundreds of thousands flood the streets to support the Day of the Petrograd Soviet. Had serious fighting erupted, the failing government could have called on, at most, twenty-five thousand armed supporters. At least one hundred thousand soldiers were prepared to fight for the soviet.

In fact, the revolutionaries carried out the takeover with remarkable order. The Petrograd soviet issued posters reading:

The Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies takes upon itself the guarding of revolutionary order in the city. . . . The Petrograd garrison will not allow any violence or disorders. The population is invited to arrest hooligans and Black Hundred agitators and take them to the Soviet commissars at the nearest barracks.

When the Winter Palace fell, the Bolshevik commanders saved the old ministers from being shot and had them arrested instead. Troops searched the attackers, the defenders, and the odd robber to prevent looting.

The barely functioning war ministry gave the revolutionaries a backhanded compliment in one of its last messages:

The insurrectionists are preserving order and discipline. There have been no cases at all of destruction or pogroms. On the contrary, patrols of insurrectionists have detained strolling soldiers. . . . [T]he plan of the insurrection was undoubtedly worked out in advanced and carried through inflexibly and harmoniously.

On October 26, the soviet appealed to the rest of Russia to adopt the new order: “The whole of revolutionary Russia and the whole world are looking at you.” In Petrograd, they smashed wine cellars to limit the victors’ drunkenness.

Heavy fighting took place in Moscow, and several hundred died. But across most of the country, Lenin later said, “we entered any town we liked, proclaimed the Soviet government, and within a few days nine-tenths of the workers came over to our side.”

Things became more violent on the periphery, where the provisional government’s supporters could utilize segments of the old army to resist the revolution. It was there that the bloodshed was the greatest.

Learning to Be Cruel

Revolutions are violent acts, but violence has many sides. By early 1918, the Russian revolution appeared to have won. It called for peace and asked the people to rise up and obtain it.

But the European powers wanted neither peace nor a successful revolution at their doorstep — so the Central Powers broke the armistice and deployed their own violence on the Eastern front. They also supported counterrevolutionary violence within Russia. In fact, without this external aid, it is difficult to see how the resulting civil war could have been sustained.

In late 1917, the former commander-in-chief General Alekseev called for anti-Bolshevik forces to gather in the Don and the Kuban. By February 1918, only 4,000 soldiers had showed up. The year before, the Russian officer class had numbered around 250,000. Apparently, very few were willing to keep fighting.

Without major assistance from outside, these counterrevolutionaries would have had neither the confidence nor the means to continue their war. In this context, as Trotsky later said, the revolution too had to learn to be cruel.