From Compromise to Power

Over the course of 1917, the Petrograd Soviet transformed from a body willing to negotiate with capital to one ready for revolution.

The Petrograd Soviet Assembly meeting in 1917. Wikimedia

In just a few days, the February Revolution swept away Russian tsarism. After the revolt, the elected Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies stood side by side with the unelected Provisional Government. Its role throughout 1917 couldn’t have been more pivotal.

Militant workers had initiated the first soviet during the mass general strike of 1905. The idea had become so ingrained in the revolutionary movement that, on the second day of the 1917 uprising, some factories began electing representatives in anticipation of the new soviet’s creation.

But, when the Mensheviks convened the group on February 27, moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky promised that it would work to “maintain order.” Unlike the 1905 edition — which had served as an organ of struggle — the Petrograd Soviet almost exclusively elected intellectuals who had not actively participated in the revolution to the executive committee.

By the end of March, 2,000 deputies overrepresented the 150,000 troops in Petrograd while only 800 represented some 400,000 industrial workers. Despite the pivotal role women textile workers played in February, the Soviet’s composition was overwhelmingly male, with only a few dozen female deputies. The disorganized and raucous general assemblies meant that the executive committee conducted most of the real business.

This committee had rather less ambitious aims than the workers and soldiers. Instead of taking power, it immediately pressured its reluctant liberal allies to form a government. The Mensheviks believed that the “government that was to take the place of Tsarism must be exclusively bourgeois,” wrote Nikolai Sukhanov.

After the Soviet handed power over to the Provisional Government on March 2, its newspaper Izvestiia explained that the council would pressure the new government in the interests of “the democracy” while not pushing them too hard and sparking a counterrevolution.

However, the executive committee didn’t meet even this modest goal. To appease the Provisional Government, Soviet leaders backtracked on every major issue. They delayed the land question until a Constituent Assembly could be elected, an event that was itself repeatedly postponed. Incredibly, they even agreed to continue the monarchy — though Nicholas’s brother Michael made that decision for them.

On the highly contentious war issue, the Soviet issued a pacifist manifesto on May 14, which the Bolshevik Pravda described as “a conscious compromise between different tendencies represented in the Soviet.” The resulting consensus was so vague that even the war-mongering Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov endorsed it, as did Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev for the Bolsheviks.

Indeed, it’s hard to distinguish the Bolshevik record in these early days from that of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). The executive committee’s records reveal that the faction’s leaders remained silent on most questions of principle, confirming Trotsky’s assessment:

There is to be found in its reports and its press not one proposal, announcement, or protest, in which Stalin expressed the Bolshevik point of view in opposition to the fawning of the Mensheviks and SRs.

So ghastly was the Bolshevik record under Stalin and Kamenev that, several years later, they would pressure Alexander Shliapnikov to revise his memoirs.

In these first few weeks, the Soviet’s only significant act was Order Number 1, which radical soldiers had to pressure their leaders to pass. This famous decree empowered enlisted men to elect their own committees and to reject orders that did contradicted the Soviet. Order Number 1 became a massive obstacle for the Provisional Government’s war aims.

Lenin quickly recognized the instability of this dual power system. The Provisional Government and the Soviet had opposing class interests that neither diplomacy nor compromise could bring together. Moving closer to Trotsky and some extreme Vyborg Bolsheviks, Lenin’s April Theses argued for undermining the war effort through fraternization at the front, transferring state power to the soviets, and bringing all “social production and the distribution of products” under the control of the workers’ councils.

In the twenty-four hours after his April 3 return, Lenin spoke at numerous street rallies, delivering his radical new perspective to over a thousand Bolshevik activists. He agitated against “the war of the pirate capitalists,” blew up Kamenev and Stalin’s unity negotiations with the Mensheviks, and invoked the wrath of opponents across the political spectrum.

The Menshevik newspaper howled that his new program represented an “undoubted danger” to the revolution while the more hysterical yellow press compared him to the “legend of the antichrist.” Prime Minister Lvov soon complained that instead of the “unwavering support” the Soviet had promised, it had fallen “under suspicion.” Meanwhile, down on Nevsky Prospect, workers and soldiers carrying banners reading “Down with the Capitalist Ministers!” clashed with liberals carrying banners reading “Down with Lenin!”

The War and the April Crisis

Russia’s role in World War I would bring these simmering tensions to a boil. Pressured by the Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli, the Provisional Government announced on March 27 that it had exclusively defensive war aims. However, less than a month later, Milyukov, a member of the liberal Constitutional Democratic party (Kadet), issued a note to the Allies that essentially disavowed the previous declaration.

He argued that Russia could “carry the world war to a decisive victory,” taking control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles. Far from weakening the empire’s war aims, he believed that the revolution had strengthened “the universal desire to carry the world war through to a decisive victory” and that “guarantees and sanctions” — meaning annexations and indemnities — would prevent further conflicts.

Milyukov’s frank explanation of the predatory aims of Russian and Allied imperialism shattered the fragile peace between the Soviet and the Provisional Government. The executive committee met late into the night but failed to come to any agreement.

When Milyukov’s note appeared in the morning papers on April 20, a sergeant from the Finland Regiment mobilized an antiwar demonstration. Several other regiments and Baltic sailors soon joined the protest, until twenty-five thousand armed soldiers converged on Mariinsky Palace with placards reading, “Down with Milyukov!”

The next day, a larger Bolshevik-initiated demonstration took shape while the Mensheviks and SRs urged workers and soldiers not to participate. Across the Mariinsky Palace’s immense facade, the Bolsheviks stretched a bold red streamer with the words “Long Live the Third International!” The Kadets called their own counterdemonstration to support the government, and, for the first time since February, fighting broke out on Nevsky.

Some Bolsheviks took the demand “Down with the Provisional Government!” literally, attempting to storm the palace and arrest ministers. General Lavr Kornilov suggested bombarding the protesters with artillery. When this news reached the Soviet leaders, they ordered the troops to remain in their barracks.

Izvestiia complained that the leadership was working to resolve this conflict but “many supporters were demonstrating under banners with slogans that did not correspond to the aims of the Soviet,” such as “demanding the overthrow of the Government and the transfer of power to the Soviet.” That evening, the Provisional Government sent the Soviet a reworded note regarding the war, and the executive committee accepted it by a vote of 34 to 19. These leaders considered the crisis over and issued a mandate against further demonstrations.

Lenin ridiculed the resolution, arguing that the “capitalists are for continuing the war,” and after “the first crisis others will follow.” He also rejected immediate “Blanquist attempts to seize power,” calling for a long-term strategy of persuasion to explain the “proletarian method to terminate the war” and “to re-elect members inside the Soviet.”

The ultra-democratic recall of Soviet deputies would work to the Bolsheviks’ advantage. By the end of April, Lenin’s party had approximately a quarter of the Petrograd Soviet deputies and even more in the district councils. At the front, agitators’ calls for fraternizing with German soldiers struck a chord among the weary troops.

On May 6, Izvestiia was fuming about Pravda’s attempt to “undermine the confidence of the soldiery in the Soviet’s appeal.  . . . If you believe in your Soviet, then abide sacredly by its appeal to stop ‘fraternizing’!”

Kerensky’s War Offensive

Lenin’s prediction that Milyukov’s note was just the first of many crises came true. In June, Kerensky’s proposed military offensive further divided the Provisional Government, the Soviet, and the people they were supposed to represent.

When the first Congress of Soviets convened on June 3 in Petrograd, the moderate socialists enjoyed overwhelming support and could claim to rule in the name of some twenty million workers and soldiers. This group endorsed Kerensky’s advance, but, in the politically charged capital, the workers’ and soldiers’ radicalization had far outpaced the rest of the country.

In preparation for the renewed war effort, Kerensky attempted to reinstitute military discipline but faced backlash from radical soldiers. A Petrograd Bolshevik Military Organization meeting on May 23 announced that they “were ready to go out on their own if a positive decision were not adopted at the center.”

On June 8, Bolshevik leaders, including the Military Organization, voted overwhelmingly to hold a demonstration in protest of Kerensky’s plans. The Bolshevik Soldatskaia Pravda mocked the Provisional Government’s call for “war till victorious conclusion” with its own slogan: “war till victorious conclusion against the capitalists.”

Despite widespread rank-and-file support, the Bolshevik call defied both the Congress of Soviets and the Petrograd Soviet. Early on June 10, a rump Bolshevik Central Committee canceled the demonstration in a peculiar three to zero vote, with Yakov Sverdlov and Lenin abstaining against the Right majority.

The decision outraged party militants, and some Vyborg members tore up their membership cards. In the Petersburg Committee, speaker after speaker lambasted the Central Committee. Fearful of repeating the mistakes of the isolated Paris Commune, Lenin appealed to his comrades for “maximum calm, caution, patience, and organization.”

At a joint session of the Petrograd Soviet and the Presidium of the Soviet Congress on June 11, a frantic Tsereteli accused the Bolsheviks of plotting against the revolution and called for repressive measures.

Kamenev spoke for the Bolsheviks. He argued that no slogan called for “seizure of power,” only “All Power to the Soviets!” “Arrest and try me for plotting against the revolution,” he challenged, as he and the Bolsheviks walked out in protest.

The next day, the Congress endorsed Kerensky’s planned offensive and called a June 18 unity march to coincide with the military advance. However, Petrograd Soviet leaders worried that the Bolsheviks would hijack their demonstration, so they suggested that only Soviet-approved slogans could appear.

This clear break with revolutionary norms — which would have been impossible to police anyway — turned many workers and soldiers against the conservative leadership. Factories and regiments previously dominated by the SRs and Mensheviks resolved to support Bolshevik slogans.

Izvestiia complained that “the lower, ignorant segments of the population” were swayed by “anarchist-Bolshevik propaganda.” On the eve of the demonstration, Tsereteli told the Bolshevik representatives that “we shall all see which the majority follow, you or us.”

The four hundred thousand-strong demonstration was, as Maxim Gorky’s Novaya zhizn’ stated, “a complete triumph of Bolshevism among the Petersburg Proletariat.” Bolshevik banners and slogans dominated. Only a small minority of official Soviet, Menshevik, and SR slogans appeared in a sea of placards demanding “All Power to the Soviets!” and “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers!”

The demonstration coincided with the start of Kerensky’s horrific offensive, which would kill some forty thousand soldiers. Izvestiia reported on a delegation of the Committee of the Front to the Tenth Army “to explain to these people the point of view of the Russian democracy.” In many regiments, the

Committee were told that the soldiers would not recognize their authority, the Petrograd Soviet, or the Minister of War, and would not go on the offensive.  They did not intend to die, when there was freedom in Russia and a chance to get some land.

At the 703 regiment, soldiers ridiculed the delegation for “urging us to obey the order of Kerensky” and then beat up, threatened to kill, and finally arrested the Petrograd Soviet delegation.

Kerensky’s long-awaited offensive proved catastrophic. While publicly claiming success, he conceded in a coded telegram on June 24 that “after the first days, sometimes after the first hours of battle  . . . spirits dropped” and units “began drawing up resolutions with demands for immediate leave to the rear.”

The July Semi-Insurrection

The July Days intensified these conflicts. Rebels implored the Petrograd Soviet to take power while the leaders paradoxically begged troops to defend them from these same demonstrators. A burly worker famously expressed this contradiction when he confronted SR leader Viktor Chernov outside the Tauride Palace and shouted, “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it is given to you!”

In February, thousands of militant First Machine Gunners had marched from Orenburg and stayed in Petrograd to defend the revolution. These soldiers initiated a revolt after two-thirds of them were ordered to the front, which they considered nothing short of a death sentence. On July 1, the Soviet demanded that the gunners return to their barracks, but they continued with their plans for an armed demonstration.

Delegates to the Bolshevik All-Russian Military Organization conference arrived with rifles on their backs, ready for a fight. Provincial organizations reported widespread anger at Kerensky and his plans. Soldiers demanding immediate preparations for an armed uprising repeatedly interrupted the conference. Lenin’s “cold shower” speech warned against playing into the government’s hands by staging a disorganized and premature uprising.

By July, some extremist Bolsheviks looked more like anarchists. A July 2 anarchist meeting called for armed revolt, and, indeed, this group would play “a significant role in the uprising,” as Alexander Rabinowich has argued.

The anarchist Bleichman urged the machine gunners to overthrow the government, but his belief that “the street will organize us” only led to chaos. When ten thousand armed sailors arrived from Kronstadt, Soviet leaders pleaded for them to return home, but they were more sympathetic to Bleichman, who again urged insurrection.

Izvestiia printed the demands that the massive demonstration had submitted to the All-Russian Soviet executive:

Removal of the ten bourgeois ministers, all power to the soviets, cessation of the offensive, confiscation of the printing plants of the bourgeois press, the land to be state property, state control of production.

That night Kamenev and Zinoviev convinced the Bolshevik leaders to cancel the next day’s demonstration out of concern that it would spiral out of control. When it became clear that the demonstration would happen anyway and that the right-wing Bolshevik strategy would look like a betrayal, the July 4 Pravda was published with a blank space where the cancellation appeal was originally inserted.

Half a million marched that day, and the government reacted violently. Izvestiia described a well-orchestrated ambush:

As they [the protesters] were passing by a church, a bell tolled in the steeple and as though at a signal both rifle and machine gun fire was opened from the roofs of the houses.

When they dashed to the other side, “shots came also from the roofs opposite.” The Menshevik newspaper further reported that Cossack cannons fired on the demonstrators.

The July Days showed that the fragile national unity following Nicholas’s abdication had ended. “Under the red banners marched only workers and soldiers,” wrote one participant:

The cockades of the officials, the shiny buttons of students, the hats of “lady sympathizers” were not to be seen.  . . . The common slaves of capitalism were marching.

The Kadet Vladimir Nabokov wrote that the protesters wore “[t]he same insane, dumb, beastlike faces which we all remember from the February days.” Class hatred was now mutual. Workers carried banners that read, “Remember capitalists, machine guns and steel will smash you!”

Hearing that Kerensky was headed to the front by rail, some machine gunners hunted for him at the Baltic station. Others commandeered wealthy residents’ automobiles and drove up and down Nevsky, brandishing their weapons.

Outside Tauride Palace, Chernov pleaded for calm until Kronstadt sailors arrested him. Trotsky finally intervened and secured the SR leader’s release.

Armed workers searching the palace for Tsereteli burst into a Soviet session where, according to Sukhanov, some of the delegates “failed to show adequate courage and self-control.” One of the workers jumped onto the speaker’s platform and, shaking his rifle, declared:

Comrades! How long are we workers going to stand for this treachery? You are here debating and making deals with the landlords.  . . . You’re busy betraying the working class. Well, just understand that the working class won’t put up with it! There are 30,000 of us all told from Putilov. We’re going to have our way. All Power to the Soviets! We have a firm grip on our rifles! Your Kerenskys and Tseritelis are not going to fool us!

The balance of power had shifted against the Soviet leadership. Assigned to find loyal troops, the Menshevik Wladimir Woytinsky described his “fruitless efforts to enlist detachments to defend Taurida Palace.” Ironically, the first troops who arrived were loyalists belonging to Trotsky’s interdistrict organization. The terrified Soviet leadership met them with cheers of joy.

That night the Bolsheviks called for an end to the demonstrations, and, the next morning, the Provisional Government launched a campaign against Lenin and his comrades, claiming they were German agents.

In the wake of the July Days, the non-socialists in government decided to crush the revolution, restore discipline in the army, and annihilate the Soviet. This slaughterhouse solution to the uprising, however, would fall at the feet of the very target they hoped to destroy. The Soviet would finally rise to protect the revolution.

The Soviet Radicalizes

Lenin fled to Finland as hundreds of Bolsheviks were arrested on trumped-up charges. For example, the government claimed that Trotsky had traveled on Lenin’s German-provided “sealed train” — proving that both revolutionaries really served Russia’s enemy — but Trotsky had been stuck in a Nova Scotian concentration camp at the time.

Tsereteli signed the arrest warrant for Lenin, and it momentarily looked like the Mensheviks had joined the counterrevolution. But attacks on the metalworkers’ union, Menshevik offices, and the arrest of some Soviet deputies made it clear that the more conservative socialists were hardly safe from the wide net of repression that the government had cast.

The Kadet conference abandoned its democratic pretenses and clamored for a strong dictator. Speakers blamed Kerensky and the Soviet for Order Number 1 and for “the present dreadful situation in Russia.”

Business magnates at the Congress of Trade and Industry called for “a radical break  . . . with the dictatorship of the Soviet” that had led Russia “to destruction.” Vladimir Purishkevich, pogromist and founder of the Union of Russian People, joined the chorus, demanding the immediate dissolution of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

The counterrevolutionaries found a strongman in General Lavr Kornilov, the newly appointed Commander of the Russian Army. On the evening before his attempted coup Kornilov announced, “It is time to hang the German agents and spies, Lenin first of all, and disperse the Soviet.” He went on, promising to “hang the entire membership of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies” if necessary.

This was something of a theme with the general. Before the revolution Kornilov had talked incessantly about hanging “all those Guchkovs and Milyukovs,” but now he had common cause with the liberals, as they both wanted to annihilate the revolution.

Kerensky and Kornilov negotiated the details of restoring order. They agreed to reinstate the death penalty in the rear, to dissolve the army committees, and to institute martial law in Petrograd.

Troops began moving toward the revolutionary capital on August 25, and, two days later, Kornilov reported that the Third Corps would arrive in the city’s outskirts that evening. He asked Kerensky to declare martial law.

That same day, the Mensheviks proposed a Committee of Defense against the counterrevolution. If “the committee wanted to act seriously,” commented Sukhanov, “only the Bolsheviks had genuine resources.”

Up to forty thousand volunteered for the Red Guards and thousands more came out in support. Militant metalworkers produced one hundred cannons in a matter of days by working sixteen-hour shifts. Revolutionary Russia appeared on the brink of open civil war.

And yet the military confrontation never materialized. Kornilov stayed at headquarters in Mogilev, leaving General Alesandr Krymov to lead the Cossacks and the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division, better known as the Savage Division. Meanwhile, the Soviet had reached out to revolutionary railway workers, who disrupted the trains, isolating Krymov’s troops on eighty different lines. Soviet agitators engaged the Savage Division, and the soldiers ordered to suppress the revolution ended up hoisting a red flag for “Land and Freedom.”

In Petrograd, two thousand loyalists were expected to respond to the fictitious Bolshevik uprising. Cossack leader Alexander Dutov complained, “I called people to come into the streets, but nobody followed me.”

General Khrystofor Baranovsky in Petrograd pleaded with General Mikhail Alexiev at headquarters in Mogilev, “the soviets are raging, the atmosphere can be discharged only by a demonstration of power, arrest Kornilov.” Alexiev responded, “We have fallen completely into the tenacious paws of the soviet.”

The Center Collapses

By August 30, the planned coup had obviously collapsed, taking the Kadet party with it. Its newspaper announced “Kornilov’s aims are the same as those we feel necessary for the salvation of the country.  . . . We advocated it long before Kornilov.”

On September 1, Tsereteli attempted to defend his erstwhile allies. Ignoring Milyukov’s proposal to anoint General Alexiev dictator in hopes of appeasing both Kerensky and Kornilov, Tsereteli claimed that “at least its [the Kadet party’s] prominent figures upheld the revolution.”

Both the Mensheviks and the SRs broke with their liberal allies only to backtrack a couple of weeks later. Meanwhile, the Soviet and the public learned that Kerensky had worked with Kornilov to suppress the people’s council. The Left SR paper Znamya truda emphatically stated the findings:

It [the Kornilov coup] was not a conspiracy against the Provisional Government but an agreement with it against the democratic organizations.

The Mensheviks and Right SRs desperately clung to the now thoroughly discredited Kerensky regime, and they finally paid the price for their strategy. By early September, the Left SRs dominated the party’s Petrograd conference. The entire Menshevik Vasilevsky district joined the Bolsheviks. Menshevik factory strongholds recalled their Soviet deputies in favor of Bolsheviks. In other factories, former deputies begged for forgiveness and even ripped up portraits of Kerensky.

The decisive showdown for control of the Petrograd Soviet took place during the September 9 presidium election. Trotsky, speaking for the first time since his release from prison a few days earlier, reminded his listeners, “When they propose to you to sanction the political line of the presidium, do not forget that you will be sanctioning the policies of Kerensky.”

“All understood that they were deciding the question of power — of the war — of the fate of the revolution,” Trotsky later wrote. Rather than a roll call vote, the assembly decided that those who accepted the leadership’s resignation should leave the hall.

Workers and soldiers moved toward the door amid shouted exchanges of “Kornilovists!” and “July heroes!” The final tally: 414 voted for the Menshevik-SR presidium and the coalition government; 519 voted against; and 67 abstained.

Tsereteli congratulated himself and other former leaders as “the consciousness that for half a year  . . . held worthily and held high the banner of the revolution.” Trotsky, for his part, reminded the ousted leaders that “the charge against the Bolsheviks  . . . being in the service of the German staff had not been withdrawn.” The Soviet resolved “to brand with contempt the authors, distributors, and promoters of the slander.”

With both the Kadets and Kerensky in total disrepute, Lenin briefly argued for a compromise with the Soviet leadership: it would take power, and the Bolsheviks would become the loyal opposition. However, after the compromise socialists persisted in their support for Kerensky’s coalition — which still included Kadets — and after the Bolsheviks claimed a majority in the Petrograd, Moscow, and other Soviets, Lenin reverted to the “All Power to the Soviets” strategy. For the next six weeks he incessantly barraged the Central Committee with demands for immediate insurrection.

All Power to the Soviets

Even after the famous October 10 resolution for “armed insurrection,” Bolshevik leaders wavered. Some even undermined revolutionary action.

When Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev published their arguments against insurrection in Novaia zhizn’ on October 18, Lenin finally had it, advocating that “the strikebreakers be kicked out” of the party.

To increase popular support, the leaders decided that an institution of the Petrograd Soviet — rather than the Bolshevik party — would organize the uprising. On October 16, the now far-left executive committee announced the formation of a Military Revolutionary Committee for “defense of the capital.”

In the battle for authority over the troops, the committee sent a delegation to the Petrograd military headquarters and informed them that “henceforth orders not signed by us are invalid.” The generals refused to recognize them, and, the next day, the committee declared that, by breaking with the Soviet, headquarters had become “a direct weapon of counterrevolutionary forces.”

In the frenzied Petrograd Soviet meetings on the days leading up to the Second Congress, many arriving soldiers demanded the Soviet take power. Mensheviks repeatedly warned of the “floods of blood” that the insurrection would bring.

When Eva Broida asked whether the Military Revolutionary Committee would organize an insurrection, Trotsky asked, “In whose name is Broido asking, is it in the name of Kerensky, the intelligence service, the secret police, or other such institutions?”

Indeed, the Mensheviks did not announce their military actions in advance. During the October 23 assembly, Moscow Soviet leader Lomov reported that Cossacks had sacked the Kaluga Soviet. The Mensheviks and SR city duma had requested the troops, who had “inflicted outrageous violence” against Soviet leaders.

That same night, Trotsky declared that the “creation of the Military Revolutionary was a political step towards seizing power and transferring it to the hands of the Soviets,” but, as late as October 24, he denied that it was planning to do so.

In the general assembly the very next day, Trotsky declared to an enraptured audience that “the Provisional Government no longer exists.  . . . In the history of the revolutionary movement I know of no other examples in which such huge masses were involved and which developed so bloodlessly.”  While Lenin’s opponents, including some in his own party, believed that the new Soviet regime would last but a few weeks, Lenin remained unflappably optimistic that the third Russian Revolution “would lead to the victory of socialism.” Lenin was confident that “We shall be helped in this by the world working-class movement, which is already beginning to develop in Italy, Britain, and Germany.”

The Menshevik and Right SR strategy of compromising with capitalism had proven a failure. At a pivotal moment in working-class history, the Menshevik majority and Right SRs walked out of the Congress of Soviets to join forces with the pogromist Purishkevich and other anti-socialists.

As we move toward the anniversary of the October Revolution, anticommunists will once again attempt to brand the Bolshevik victory as a minority coup d’état. This fabrication ignores the democratic mandate that the Bolsheviks sought and won over the course of months of struggle.