Category Archives: History

“We are digging up the foundations of a very old world.” -Alan Sharp

1917: Into the Dustbin of History

Trotsky speaking in Red Square

Leon Trotsky speaking before a crowd in Petrograd, October, 1917.

“I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” -Vladimir Lenin, in conversation with Valeriu Marcu while exiled in Switzerland.

On this day, one hundred years ago, the October Revolution began. In the Gregorian Calendar, the Revolution started on November 7, but in the old Russian Julian calendar, it was October 25. In memory, it marked the beginning of the state that would become the Soviet Union. For those involved, it was something more important: the end of the Provisional Government and what might be called a de facto state of anarchy.

The word anarchy is worth interrogating. Recent abuses of the word in popular culture suggest that anarchy is a kind of directionless physical violence, which removes it from its more valuable political usage. Anarchy was a widespread political ideology at the turn of the century, seen as the antithesis to monarchy, oligarchy, and above all, hierarchy. These words stem from the Greek arkhon, meaning “ruler,” and in the Athenian Democracy indicated certain offices that one could hold as religious kings, generals, or administrators. Anarchy, then, is the absence of rulers, but specifically the absence of hierarchy, or the stratification of rulers over the ruled. In the context of an oppressive Tsarist empire whose police shot protestors while stoking antisemitism and nationalism and fought a useless war for political ambitions and allegiances, the concept of anarchy would have been quite appealing.

The problem with the Provisional Government that formed after February, 1917, was not that it was explicitly authoritarian. The problem, from its inception, was that it was a balancing act between traditional hierarchies and the growing desire for the end of those hierarchies. Alexander Kerensky came to control the Provisional Government, sharing power with the soviets while trying to maintain the war.  What Trotsky called “dual power” between Kerensky’s Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet (representing workers, peasants, and soldiers), Lenin called “Bonapartism,” in reference to Napoleon Bonaparte. In mid-1917, Lenin wrote that Kerensky was maneuvering “state power, which leans on the military clique (on the worst elements of the army) for support, between two hostile classes and forces which more or less balance each other out.” Lenin was not alone in criticizing the Provisional Government, which was a primary point of contention among Russia’s revolutionaries.

Apart from Kerensky’s perpetuation of the war effort, he was shown to be an unhelpful leader in August, during what became known as the Kornilov Affair. Lavr Kornilov was a general who, in August, attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government and install a right-wing military dictatorship, a proto-fascist regime that would have undermined the February Revolution and reinstated a new Tsarism. As China Mieville writes of the affair, “. . . there was more than one conspiracy simmering away on the right. Various shadowy groups–the Union of Officers, the Republican Centre and Military League–were meeting to discuss plans for martial law” (213). Add to these the threat of the antisemitic Black Hundreds, responsible for mass murders and pogroms across Russia, as well as counterrevolutionary efforts to win the war, the bleak regime Kornilov almost created would have been as oppressive, if not more so, than the regime of Tsar Nicholas II. But the coup failed because Kerensky managed to work alongside the Petrograd Soviet in time to stop Kornilov’s renegades from invading the capitol.

There was leadership, then, but no ruler. Christopher Read writes that one consequence of the Kornilov Affair was “a sort of reverse of the July Days,” that the “right had discredited itself and restored the ascendancy of the left.” He also writes that there were consequences for Kerensky, too, who “made an agreement with the Petrograd Soviet, armed it, withdrew the ban on its members, primarily the Bolsheviks, and released Soviet prisoners from jail. . . But it was not enough. Kerensky was seen to have cultivated Kornilov in the first place, not least in appointing him C-in-C” (Read 92-93). Indeed, Kerensky was seen as having worked with Kornilov, and many believed that he was sympathetic to an authoritarian coup that would relieve him of his duties. If nothing else, the affair proved that the Provisional Government had become dysfunctional, barely clinging to life.

In the months that followed, popular support for the Bolsheviks rose while support for Kerensky plummeted. It is important to note that the goal of most on the far left, including some Mensheviks, was to pass power to the soviets completely, and end the power of the Provisional Government. As early as September, “eighty soviets in large and medium towns backed the call for a soviet government. In towns such as Tsaritsyn, Narva, Krasnoiarsk, and Kostroma soviet power was already a reality” (Smith 147). During this time, the Bolsheviks were actively campaigning from the ground up, organizing factories, speaking in public, and stoking public support for a soviet antithesis to the Provisional Government. It was around this time that Lenin suggested that the Bolsheviks, “‘having obtained a majority in the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in both capitols, can and must take state power into their own hands‘” (Mieville 246), and should make no compromise with the Provisional Government by simply walking away from it.

Here, Lenin believed that the time was ripe for the soviets to lead the soviets in taking power. Earlier, he had encouraged the Bolsheviks to refrain from leaving the Provisional Government in July because they were not popularly supported, and it was important for him to recognize that the support of the workers, peasants, and soldiers was more important than overthrowing a weak Provisional Government. It had to be done for the soviets and all they represented. Now that it was clear the Bolsheviks were going to gain popular recognition in an upcoming pre-parliament session (which would begin October 7), the Bolsheviks would declare their legitimacy among the soviets and then walk out.

The Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, who helped exiled leaders like Lenin correspond with the party and without whom the revolution would not have succeeded, articulated the main argument against working with the Provisional Government in her text “Why the Bolsheviks Must Win.” She wrote that the “February revolution could remove none of the factors which caused it, namely war, rising prices, famine and privation. At the same time, the Russian bourgeoisie calmly continued their rule” (Kollontai). In other words, the horrors that motivated widespread protests across Russia continued to inflict damage, and needed to be addressed with different means. For many Bolsheviks, this meant an armed insurrection to precipitate the transfer of power to the soviets.

After walking out on the pre-parliament, the Bolshevik Central Committee met in secret on October 10 to vote on whether or not to implement an insurrection. By ten to two, after numerous speeches from numerous members, they voted in favor of insurrection. They were now popular representatives of the peasants and workers, and the time had come for another, more radical change necessitated by the moment’s urgency. For the Central Committee members, waiting for more elections would result only in more casualties as the German army approached and increase the chance of another Kornilov-inspired coup. If they waited any longer, the comatose Provisional Government might be toppled and a military dictator might be installed.

The insurrection began on October 25. Fittingly, this was also Trotsky’s birthday.

That day, Trotsky spoke to an “emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet” and announced, “‘On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists‘” (Mieville 289). The Second Congress of Soviets opened to debate a new soviet-led government. Meanwhile, Red Guards (a paramilitary branch of the Bolsheviks), seized key areas of Petrograd, including bridges, train stations, the post office, and eventually the Winter Palace, where they arrested the remaining members of the Provisional Government, who surrendered peacefully. All except Kerensky, who had long since fled the city.

A number of elected officials who opposed the insurrection walked out of the Second Congress of Soviets, while Trotsky pontificated on the legitimacy of the move he and the Bolsheviks made: “A rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy.” While those who dissented walked up and left, just as the Bolsheviks had at the pre-parliament weeks before, Trotsky denounced them, shouting, “you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: to the dustbin of history” (298-299). On those words, the opposition left the Congress to continue debating a new regime, one without monarchy, oligarchy, or hierarchy.

By early morning on October 26, after tense nightlong debates, the Second Congress of Soviets passed a resolution drafted by Lenin to build a soviet-exclusive government, end the war, grant self-determination to nations Russia had subjugated, and transfer land to the peasants (303-304), thus creating an all-soviet state.

The October Revolution occurred without a single loss of life. It was armed, but bloodless. A ship controlled by the Red Guards, the Aurora, fired a blank shot, and some shots were fired periodically during the arrest of the Provisional Government, but nobody died in the October Revolution, partly because of how well organized the Red Guards were, but mostly because the government in place was apathetic to its own demise. It did not resist arrest and cancellation, which suggests that the October Revolution was not a coup, as some historians contest. As S. A. Smith puts it, “. . . a coup implies the seizure of a functioning state machine. Arguably, Russia had not had this since February” (43).

It is telling that the document announcing the insurrection’s success, titled “To the Citizens of Russia,” begins not by declaring a new soviet regime but by iterating that “The Provisional Government has been deposed” (Lenin). A bottom-up regime change was important, but it was more important to end what was in place, a doomed, if not failed, attempt to sustain a fraction of the old guard through the exhausted imitation of the old guard’s strategies. It was not a state of anarchy the way contemporary anarchists would have preferred. Kerensky held together a stitched-up government of poorly balanced provisions and hierarchy beyond its health. He was not a competent ruler, but he still ruled, and as such, he presided over a kind of anarchy by leaving the Provisional Government open to coups that favored hierarchy, which would have been a return to pre-revolutionary Russia.

The October Revolution was an attempt to replace the lasting remains of the Tsarist regime with something new, something untried, something that could create a state without hierarchy. It was a somewhat democratic effort to reaffirm the rule of the soviets, to make every worker, peasant, and soldier free of status. It seems that in the moment, the only other option was a cynical return to military dictatorship, well-known to those many who survived it before. The Bolsheviks wanted to give the Congress an alternative, however strange and frightening it may have been, to what Russians had spent decades suffering through. After the bloody Civil War, Lenin’s too-soon passing, and Stalin’s hijacking of the state, the Second Congress is easily obscured in its long, cold aftermath.

One step forward, one step back.

Trotsky condemned those who refused to try for an alternative to hierarchy to the “dustbin of history,” where, now that Russia is under a new brand of right-wing authoritarianism, the entire Soviet Union now rests, sometimes even in peace.


Mieville, China. October. Verso, 2017.

Read, Christopher. War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Smith, S. A. Russia in Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Smith, S. A. The Russian Revolution. Sterling, 2011.

Thorley, John. Athenian Democracy. Routledge, 1996.

1917: To Free Russia

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887.

The American journalist and socialist John Reed, who went to Russia to cover the revolution, interviewed Alexander Kerensky in late 1917, though the interview was published in The Liberator in 1918, after the October Revolution, which may have shaped its publication. Kerensky’s role as the de facto of the Provisional Government, a political body formed to stabilize the country in the wake of the February Revolution. Kerensky took power in spring, survived a coup and military defeats in summer, and by autumn he had come to embody the political and economic stagnation that led many Russians to revolt against Tsar Nicholas II in the first place. Kerensky continued the war effort (with disastrous results), censored critics by shutting down newspaper presses, exiled Bolsheviks whom he then appealed to for help after the failed Kornilov coup, and devoted most of his energy to sustaining his government at the cost of reforms and peace.

Reed writes of the interview that, as of its writing on “October 23, Kerensky is alone. . . In the midst of the class-struggle, which deepens and grows bitterer and bitterer every day, his place becomes more and more precarious” (Reed). Noting that Kerensky has become a symbol of the revolution’s failure for the working classes and a symbol of the failed war effort for the Allies, Reed adds grimly that “Kerensky will fall, and his fall will be the signal for civil war.”

It is interesting to note Reed’s carefully sympathetic treatment of Kerensky, presenting him as optimistic but naive. At one point in the interview, he asks Kerensky what he thinks his “purpose” is in the Provisional Government, to which he responds, “Just to free Russia.” This statement contrasts his continued, if not obsessive, involvement in World War One as well as his stagnant approach to Russia’s colonies, from Ukraine to Chechnya, from Scandinavia to Central Asia, vying for autonomy after centuries of Tsarist control.

Russia’s colonies fared variously, if not disproportionately, between February and October under the Provisional Government. Treadgold and Ellison note that historically, the “tsars had recognized no such entity as Ukraine. During the nineteenth century Ukrainian intellectuals had gathered to work for the cause of their new nationalism” (Treadgold & Ellison 108), and that the Provisional Government halfheartedly recognized but questioned an autonomous Ukraine. Central Asian communities pushed for greater autonomy as well. In May, 1917, an all-Russian Muslim Congress organized and met in Moscow, where they “proclaimed the emancipation of Muslim women, and established a religious administration independent of state control for all Russian Islam” (110), viewing the revolution as an opportunity to reevaluate and reaffirm post-Tsarist identities.

Historically, the Tsarist regime exercised a frontier settler colonialism, comparable to the settler colonialism the US exerted over Native American land, with similar tensions. In 1916, an “anti-Russian uprising took place” between Kazakhs in modern-day Kazakhstan and Russian colonists, “which the Russian tsarist military suppressed brutally, forcing some 300,000 Kazakhs to flee” into China (Peimani 124). While this kind of behavior was typical of imperial Russia, Kerensky’s hesitation to grant full autonomy was perceived by many Kazakhs, among others, as a continuation of the old guard. The bloodletting between Russian settlers and Kazakhs returning from China continued well into 1917, long after Kerensky stepped in to free Russia.

Russia’s southern colonies were not at the forefront of revolutionary discussions. Even the Bolsheviks did not explicitly prioritize the autonomy of Central Asian territories. In his 1916 essay “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin writes that “Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc. etc.–are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained monarchies and the imperial bourgeoisie” (Lenin), and though Kazakhs, Chechans, Tartars, and other Central Asian groups might be included in Lenin’s use of “etc. etc.,” and though their freedom is logically consistent with Lenin’s argument from the same essay that “Imperialism is the highest stage of development of capitalism,” their absence is disappointingly consistent with the attitude of most Russian revolutionaries at the time.

It is certainly consistent with the attitude Kerensky had toward Russia’s colonial borders, who were not wholly unrepresented in the Soviets, but their calls for autonomy were overridden and often ignored. Kerensky’s Provisional Government was intended to restore order, which for starving urban workers was at least briefly productive. But for displaced, colonized peoples, restored order meant a reinstatement of the colonial status quo. And the bloodletting, much like the war, continued.

John Reed writes that Kerensky called himself a “doomed man” in late October, while simultaneously claiming his role was to free Russia. To free Russia from what? Himself? The stalled change he oversaw? The war he perpetuated? If Reed’s portrayal is accurate, Kerensky became a variation of his own stagnation, able to recognize that he, like his regime, was temporary, even doomed. That his fall would precipitate the Russian Civil War, which it eventually did.

Did Kerensky know he would fall? Did he think he could sustain the Russia he presided over? Did he believe he could save Russia by remaining in power, or did he believe that he could save it by finally beginning to dismantle the state’s violence after three years of war and three centuries of imperialism? What does it take to show political leaders that they are poisonous to the countries they oversee? Kerensky, like most inept, corrupt, or failed leaders, chose to stay in power, and the ensuing frustration with what was perceived as his cryptic neo-tsarism precipitated the October Revolution, not an act of taking power but recreating it where it was stalled, stored, rendered useless beyond repair.


Peimani, Hooman. Conflict and Security in Central Asia and the Caucuses. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000

1917: The July Scandals

Eastern Front 1917

Russian soldiers held captive by the German military in Poland, July, 1917. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

By summer in 1917, the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet were stuck in gridlock in the capitol, and Russia continued to lose ground and soldiers’ lives in the Great War. Meanwhile, Bolshevik influence had grown in response to the stagnant leadership of Alexander Kerensky. On July 16, demonstrations against that stagnation began as striking workers and mutinying soldiers took to the streets of Petrograd (again), and Bolshevik involvement and scapegoating led to the arrest of Leon Trotsky and the exile of Vladimir Lenin (again). These protests, known as the July Days, were largely a response to the failed July Offensive, or the Kerensky Offensive, earlier that month, which was a setback for the Russian military (again).

The July Days are often called a turning point in the Russian Revolution, a moment when it became clear that the inertia of the Provisional Government meant bloodshed abroad and hunger at home. However, the July Days occurred amidst the political chaos of the summer of 1917, between the scandal of Kerensky’s rise to power and his decision to recommit to the War, the Bolshevik attempt to organize Soviets while maintaining party loyalty amid party in-fighting, and a coup in August against the Provisional Government known as the Kornilov Affair. The July Days were part of an ongoing political inertia that tended toward reinstating old forms of violence.

Trotsky, in his memoir, describes the events leading up to the July Days, writing that “a declaration that I had submitted concerning Kerensky’s preparation for an offensive at the front was read by the Bolshevik faction at the congress of the Soviets. We had pointed out that the offensive was an adventure that threatened the very existence of the army” (Trotsky).  The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war would be vindicated after the Kerensky Offensive proved unsuccessful. Between July 1 and July 19, several Russian military units initially made advances toward  the western Ukrainian city Lviv, but German and Austo-Hungarian forces gradually repelled them, prompting a retreat beyond the previous Russian line. By the end of the offensive, the Russians “fell back more than a hundred kilometers” (Storey 127).

The Kerensky Offensive damaged the military’s already waning morale, and was a political disaster for Kerensky, precipitating more mutiny and disorder in the army. Russian soldiers and citizens alike turned against Kerensky during the Offensive, sparking the days-long demonstrations in July. The Bolsheviks were hesitant to support the protests, but quickly endorsed them when they began. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets had made clear in their demands that they wanted “democratization of the army” and “the earliest conclusion of a general peace without annexation, indemnity, and on the basis of self-determination,” which became an increasingly popular set of demands after the Kerensky Offensive. Furthermore, Bolshevik membership rose “from 80,000 in April to 200,000” by August (Treadgold & Ellison 102), but in the wake of the July Days, other scandals damaged the Bolsheviks as well.

The demonstrations were unsuccessful, in part because Russian military units pulled from the front were sent to quell the protests, and fired upon violent demonstrators, resulting in civilian casualties in the hundreds (again). Around this time, the Provisional Government accused Lenin of being a German spy, and the accusation was based on fairly compelling evidence. In April, Lenin had arrived in Russia with several other politically exiled Russians on a sealed train from Switzerland. The trip was funded by the German government as a military tactic, hoping that Lenin’s revolutionary leadership and anti-war agenda would convince the post-Tsar government to withdraw. The Kerensky government announced it would investigate Lenin’s German funding, and the crowds turned. Loyalists raided the leftist magazine Pravda‘s headquarters, and Lenin went into hiding when “it was revealed that he was receiving financial support from the German government” (Keegan 339). In the raid on Pravda and other Bolshevik strongholds, authorities “attempted to arrest the leaders–but caught only Anatole Lunacharsky, the mildest of them, and Trotsky” (Treadgold & Ellison 101). The Bolsheviks now had damaged reputations and no leadership in the capital.

The Kerensky government was weakened by its failed military offensive, and Kerensky’s opposition was weakened by political scandals involving Lenin’s connection to an enemy regime. By August, the unstable Provisional Government would face a coup from within its own military led by General Lavr Kornilov, and Kerensky would have to free Bolshevik political prisoners, including Trotsky, in order to sustain his almost vanished good standing with the Petrograd Soviet. But in July, 1917, the situation in Petrograd seemed frustratingly repetitive, with a heavy-handed leader responding to protests with arrests and military force, and a bloody setback on the Eastern Front. Where Russia would find itself next was not the question. The real question was whether or not Russia would go anywhere at all.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

 

1917: War and Journalism

Pravda

Russian newspaper Pravda, March 16, 1917.

The First World War was a global catastrophe. Because it was fought between colonial empires, it drew conscripts from Africa, Australia, India, the Arab World, Canada, and other regions. Outside the European theater, the Japanese Empire and China were involved in the war as well. In April of 1917, the United States joined the war. The war had high stakes for all involved across Asia, Africa, and Europe, so when Russia’s revolutionary factions debated pulling out of the war, other nations paid close attention. For most Russians, there were numerous uncertainties in 1917. For most journalists abroad, the primary question was about the war.

The lines between reportage, editorializing, and propaganda have always been messy, I think. The act of recording an event requires certain conscious decisions: what to include, what to leave out, the order of facts and events, what descriptions are useful for the reader. This is also the problem of historiography. These lines are increasingly blurred today, but in 1917, when war affected nearly every aspect of life from food rations to bonds to the draft, the press played a pertinent, easily abused role in swaying wartime opinions.

France, Britain, and the United States wanted to know if they would have an ally in the War, whereas Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted to know if they could move more forces to the Western Front to deal with the soon-to-arrive U.S. army. At the heart of Russia’s pacifist movement were the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, whose motivation for pulling out stemmed from their opposition to the connection between capitalism, imperialism, and war. As Lenin insisted, imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. For British, American, and especially French soldiers, Russia’s withdrawal could become a death sentence. Newspapers recognized their readers’ interests and fears.

Many papers did not resort to “yellow journalism” in their editorializing, but were not above subjective writing. A New York Times article from September 5, 1917, by Harold Williams entitled “Extremists Sway Workman’s Council” is a prime example among many. Reporting on the Russian Provisional Government, Williams wrote that “The all-Russian executive proposed a resolution supporting the Government view of the necessity of the death penalty” (Williams).  According to Williams, The Menshevik politician Julius Martov “sat silent in a perpetual sneer. . . put his sneer into words, and with the help of Internationalists and Social Revolutionaries defeated” the pro-death penalty measure. He added that “The issue now is patriotism or internationalism.”

It was not uncommon for American newspapers at the time to refer to Mensheviks and Bolsheviks as “extremists” or “internationalists,” in contrast to Russian “patriots.” Pacifists and labor unions in general were seen as contrary to the war effort. Their demand for better wage and working conditions limited the production of weaponry and resources. Editorializing in 1917 was common, but strategically nuanced, in part because the Russian Revolution involved so many different players and interests.

Americans (who celebrate the day they declared independence from a tyrannical monarch) endorsed the sudden democratization in Russia and the end of the monarchy. The United States was quick to recognize the new, post-Tsar government. The New York Times reported on March 22 that America was “First to Recognize Freed Russia” and  The New York Tribune reported that the British politician David George Lloyd “believed the revolution in Russia was the greatest service the Russians had yet rendered to the Allied cause” (Tribune March 22, 1917). However, they could not endorse the striking workers and mutinying soldiers who were largely responsible for that democratization. Thus, Russia was influenced by “extremists” and “agitators” rather than citizens and soldiers.

The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, in a slightly different nationalist gesture, included a poetic description of the Russian monarchy’s complete history on March 17, 1917, titled “Story of the Tsars” in which the author declares that the “story of the Tsars is like a conglomeration of the wild catastrophes of Elizabethan tragedy.” This story appeared next to others about the “Irish Question,” so that Telegraph readers saw Irish rebellions and descriptions of monarchical tragedies in the same document.

However, journalists had a diversity of perspectives, such as the American journalist John Reed. A reporter for Metropolitan Magazine, Reed was an adamant pacifist. He reported on the Great War in 1914 before the U.S. entered, and wrote editorials for the self-consciously socialist newspaper The Masses opposing the war. He lost work in 1917 because of his views, and traveled to Russia that year before the October Revolution. He died of typhus in Russia in 1920, in the midst of the Russian Civil War.

The majority of international journalists, pacifists and hawks alike, approached the Russian Revolution from a largely military-driven perspective. But the Great War was more a catalyst of the Russian Revolution. The 1905 rebellions sparked economic reforms as well as increased persecution. Poverty and oppression under Nicholas II had been a decades-long assault on numerous Russians and subjugated populations in Russia’s surrounding territories, so political involvement had increased in Russia. War was a crucial issue in the summer of 1917, but so too, clearly, were issues like the death penalty, press freedom, freedom of political dissidents, and wealth disparity, issues that the Tsar ignored and the Bolsheviks, in many cases, mishandled after the disastrous Civil War of 1917-1921.

What is clear is that there emerged competing narratives about the Revolution as it unfolded. Later Tribune articles, more neutral in tone, attest to the chaotic day-to-day changes that took place in Petrograd in October and November after the Bolsheviks seized power and counter-revolutionary forces attempted to retake the capital. The lived crisis in Petrograd appeared as a serialized daily drama for readers across the world, most of whom only wanted to know if their sons, fathers, or brothers would make it home alive. The Revolution’s far-reaching consequences had the potential to affect military families abroad and all workers within, but by summer, nobody knew what would come next.

1917: The Peasants Go to Petrograd

Peasant

Peasant, Victor Vasnetsov, 1878.

Discussion of the Russian Revolution tends to focus on Petrograd and urban workers. Almost from the beginning of the February Revolution, the Soviets and Provisional Government directed most of their energy toward those striking in the capitol or the military.

Alexander Kerensky, a centrist leader between February and October, writes in his 1927 account of the Revolution, The Catastrophe, that no “mention of [the land] is to be found in the declaration of the Provisional Government made public on the day of its assumption  of office” and that it was not until April 2 that “the Provisional Government promulgated its agrarian reform, which was to give all the land into the hands of those who worked it” (Kerensky 121-122). He then quickly moves on to discuss industrial reforms.

Lenin and Trotsky were divided about the role Russian peasantry would play in a socialist revolution. Trotsky did not want to count on peasants to unite alongside workers. On the other hand, in his April Theses, Lenin contends that “the class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war” only if “the power passes to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat” (Lenin). He also called for the nationalization of all land. It is important to note, however, that Lenin’s emphasis is on the power of the workers and peasants united, which suggests he did not see them as a unified class but as two separate categories. The distinction between worker and peasant was taken for granted in 1917, in part because of the peasantry’s history.

Donald Treadgold and Herbert Ellison note that in “1900, 80 to 90% of the Russian people were peasants” who had, since the medieval period, been subjugated to serfdom (20). Tsar Alexander II initiated sweeping economic and agrarian reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and that “at that time the Russian peasants were liberated either from private landlords, to whom about half of them had been in virtual personal bondage, or from the state, which controlled the other half” (20). Despite the 1861 emancipation, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Russian peasants remained tied by debt and poverty to communes and landowners, much like the development of the American South’s economy after slavery, which utilized debt peonage  and Jim Crow laws as another form of bondage.

The Russian government in the nineteenth century exerted bureaucratic organization over the post-serfdom peasantries across the empire. Specifically, three years after emancipation, peasants were organized into zemstvos. A zemstvo was “an elective body instituted in 34 provinces within European Russia in 1864, empowered with certain local administrative responsibilities and assigned limited taxing authority but were nevertheless still controlled largely by landed gentry (Miller 6).

In other words, after emancipation, Russian peasants were granted a means of local self-regulation, almost a kind of proto-Soviet, but because this means came from the top-down, it was more a way to appease peasants rather than give them any real power. Still “at the mercy not only of meteorological factors as they affected harvests, but also of the equally unpredictable predatory depredations of local officials” (130), Russian peasants lived 53 years under a new, more covertly oppressive system until 1917 when more radical reforms were possible. Nevertheless, because peasants had not participated in the February Revolution in a city whose leaders had a history of giving peasants one freedom in exchange for new forms of exploitation, there was a clear divide between workers, striking in Petrograd, and peasants, growing food for the war that never seemed to end.

A 1909 book entitled The Terror in Russia: An Appeal to the British Nation details the Tsardom’s ruthlessness, including the “drastic measures” taken as a response to “a famine in several provinces of European Russia” (Kropotkin 70). These measures allowed for “a wholesale flogging of the peasants, men and women alike. . . in order to obtain the arrears” of peasants who, because of the famine, were behind on debts owed to landowners (70-71). The famine itself is more important to note, because the response of the government outweighed any potential protection peasants’ zemstvos might have offered. By 1917, the situation had not changed, because the system had not changed.

Peasants grew restless in the countryside waiting for Petrograd’s dual power to enact real reforms, but many peasants participated in the smaller revolutionary acts of organization and asserting their collective authority. Just as workers’ Soviets emerged, many peasants’ Soviets formed as well. In May of 1917, the leftist-dominated All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies met in Petrograd to represent the interests of peasants, though in part the meeting reemphasized the sense of alienation that many politically minded peasants felt. Nothing constructive had come from the Tsar’s reforms, the Provisional Government was stalled except to continue the war effort, and the Bolsheviks, who promised land redistribution, had made little progress.

The vast majority of imperial Russia’s population was not entirely neglected by the Revolution, but because of a long history of poverty, rural isolation, and top-down oppression coupled with a Marxist investment in industrial workers over rural workers, peasants had a difficult time making their desires known, if those desires could actually be expressed in a uniform way. Peasants’ Soviets could only make so much noise in the ongoing political crisis that took place, almost daily, in the Russian capitol.


Kerensky, Alexander. The Catastrophe. D. Appleton and Company, 1927.

Kropotkin, Peter. The Terror in Russia. Methuen & Co., 1909.

Lenin, Vladimir. “April Theses,” in Pravda No. 26, April 7, 1917.

Miller, Burton Richard. Rural Unrest during the First Russian Revolution. CEU Press, 2013.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

1917: Kerensky’s Sidestep

Alexander Kerensky and Map

Alexander Kerensky, briefly Prime Minister, 1917. Via Keystone/Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In early 1917, rebelling Russians wanted three things: political reform, economic reform, and for Russia to withdraw from the Great War. The Provisional Government that took over many of the Tsar’s administrative tasks attempted to satisfy the various Soviets that appeared throughout Russia, which represented the interests of soldiers, workers, and peasants (often in that order). Without mutinying soldiers, the February Revolution would likely not have happened, but many soldiers were divided about whether or not to continue a war that had proven disastrous for them under the Tsar.

The crisis of leadership following the February Revolution placed several key figures into powerful positions. Pavel Miliukov, a pro-monarchy and pro-war politician, became the Provisional Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and in contrast, the moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky simultaneously held positions in the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government, as the vice chairman and Minister of Justice, respectively. Kerensky’s role in the chaotic time between March and November of 1917 shaped Russian policy between the year’s revolutions.

At the start of the war, Kerensky was the leader of the center-left Trudoviks. After the February Revolution, he came to power in both the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government against official Soviet policy, which made it illegal for Soviet members to hold government positions. Kerensky occupied  a position comparable to a US Senator who somehow managed to also hold a seat in the US House of Representatives.

Led by the Mensheviks, the Petrograd Soviet held a firm grip over the capital, but refused to act as a new government because Mensheviks predominantly believed that “the February Revolution was a ‘bourgeois revolution.’ . . it was the task of the workers’ party to refrain from compromising itself in the workers’ eyes by taking power” (Treadgold & Ellison 96). As a result, the Petrograd Soviet and Provisional Government created a power vacuum that could not be filled, preventing elites from exercising power but also making it difficult to pass economic or military reforms, what Trotsky called “dual power.” Kerensky managed to bridge that gap.

Kerensky was liked by those to the political right of him. In isolation, Tsar Nicholas II wrote in his journal that the “more power [Kerensky] gets, the better” (91), and Miliukov said in a speech to the Provisional Government shortly after its formation that he “just received the consent of [his] comrade A. F. Kerensky to assume a position in the first Russian public cabinet. We are eternally joyful to place into the trusty hands of this public activist the ministry that will mete out out just retribution to the servants of the old regime” (Daly and Trofimov 51).

He continued to rise to power as the year progressed and the Bolsheviks continued to attempt to stir up support after their mid-April return from exile. In late April, Miluikov’s pro-war policy found little support, and he resigned from office on May 2, days after the Minister of War, Alexander Guchkov, resigned. Once again, Kerensky filled the power gap by replacing Guchkov as War Minister on May 5. However, Kerensky adopted a similar stance on the war, and rededicated the Russian military to the Allies. Kerensky slid to the center and Russia stayed in the war.

After a failed coup in summer, he would replace Prince Lvov (appointed by the Tsar) as Prime Minister. In four months, Kerensky would rise to power by moderation, rhetorical savvy, and his continual sidestep closer to the right. The stalled gears of “dual power” in the capital made it possible for one person straddling both branches to exert more and more influence, foreshadowing Stalin’s power grab a decade later. But Kerensky was neither a dictator nor a cynic. His politics were pragmatic, though increasingly conservative. His betrayal of leftist idealism makes sense in the wake of leftist hesitation while his rise to power was possible only through the failure and resignation of other powerful figures. Because his lack of immediate shortcomings contrasted the inadequacies of those he continually replaced, his rise to power was seen as stabilizing rather than centralizing. But his military failures and insufficient land and economic reforms imitated the same failures that led to the Tsar’s ousting. If February was a bourgeois revolution against Tsarism, October was an intelligentsia’s revolt against Kerenskyism, which was a bourgeois liberal’s attempt at restoring order without changing the order of things.


Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

1917: Fifty Shades of Red

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After the February Revolution, numerous political parties fought for influence in the Provisional Government that formed as a response to the revolution. The political Left occupied a broad, ever-changing spectrum of ideas and strategies focusing on three key issues that most Russians, at least those rioting in Petrograd, wanted to immediately address: political reform, economic reform, and whether or not to remain involved in the Great War.

Socialist leaders were split in 1917. If the October Revolution was led by Bolsheviks (meaning majority), the February Revolution was at least informed by the Mensheviks (meaning little, or minority), two distinct socialist factions. In 1903, Russian Marxists tried to forge a cohesive political party, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, for the third time at their II Congress. Their initial division was small. Mensheviks were more willing to allow liberals and bourgeois activists into their circles, whereas the Bolsheviks were highly suspicious of liberals who might muddy their leftist proletarian-focused goals, and wanted tight control of who could join the Party.

The etymologies of Bolshevik and Menshevik are misleading. Bolsheviks were “an embattled minority” whose political success was unlikely leading up to the October Revolution (Daly and Trofimov xxviii). The moderate leftist Mensheviks represented the majority of leftists in the Provisional Government, while several far-left Bolshevik leaders (including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin) were struggling to return from exile.

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were torn over subtle nuances, but ultimately aimed for a radical leftist recreation of Russia, rather than mere top-down political reforms. Both camps “agreed that workers could not solve their problems through shopfloor-struggles exclusively,” but Mensheviks “proposed to restore production under management-control” as opposed to absolute proletarian control, whereas Bolsheviks took the more orthodox Marxist approach in their desire “to have workers themselves organise production collectively, and in their interests” (Marot 126). Mensheviks cautiously called for “dual power” between the Provisional Government and the Soviets, and many workers “quickly endorsed the political objectives the Mensheviks set for the working class” (126). Radical Marxism, then, was unlikely to come from the ground up exclusively.

In addition to Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, there were also the Trudoviks, a moderate peasant-based labor party, and the Cadets, who favored a constitutional monarchy with the Tsar in power but a strong Parliament, similar to England. Both the Cadets and Trudoviks represented what might be called Russian conservatism, emphasizing all-Russian patriotism, unity, and reform. The Cadets held a majority of votes in the Provisional Government for some time, which is why the Provisional Government never withdrew from the Great War (the Bolsheviks would in December). Between the Trudoviks and Bolsheviks were several shades of Marxist thought active in both the Provisional Government and the Soviets.

Within the tightly-knit Bolshevik community, which comprised an intelligentsia whose goal was to forge a communist state, were key distinctions. Vladimir Lenin believed that “‘professional revolutionaries’ were needed to lead the proletarian party” into action and to prevent liberal and/or bourgeois infiltration (Treadgold & Ellison 40-41). Often accused of “Jacobinism” (the idea that only an elite intelligentsia should lead revolutionaries), Lenin’s model of a “party system” reflected the sense of order he wanted to affix to the revolution. Leon Trotsky was critical of the risks that a centralized Party brought. Lenin and Trotsky wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat; Stalin’s eventual dictatorship at the expense of collective authority seems to validate Trotsky’s anxieties about centralized organization.

The lineage is crucial to follow: Lenin built his politics around an orthodox reading of Marx, further than Marx allowed himself to go. Lenin did not construct Leninism, but his particular reading and implementation of Marxism, emphasizing the organization of a Communist Party, became the tenets of Leninism, which influenced subsequent communist governments. Trotsky’s politics were not built as a response to Leninism, but as a response to Stalin’s reading and implementation of Leninism, which became Stalinism. Trotskyism, then, is a Marxist-Leninist rejection of Stalinism.

Trotsky spent much of his time before the October Revolution straddling the nuances developed between Bolsheviks and Menshevisk and advocating “permanent revolution.” Unlike Lenin, he did not trust the Russian peasantry to rise up alongside the industrial proletariat. Instead, he looked beyond Russia’s borders to the millions of other workers in western Europe who had been consumed by the Industrial Revolution. Trotsky wanted to spread communism actively beyond Russia, so that an international community of urban workers could unite in a global revolution, and this could only happen if revolution was perceived to have no stopping point. However, he gravitated toward Lenin’s party system in 1917.

What is key is that just about every political ideology present in the Provisional Government in April wanted some kind of reform. Even the Cadets recognized the need for more autonomy among workers and peasants. The unity of the Communist Party did away with these political tensions, which prevented peace and economic reform, but Lenin died before his party system could prevent individual dictatorship. The diversity of leftist thought in early 1917 may have prevented more radical reforms, but as such diversity diminished, the authority of the Party began to overstep the autonomy of the Soviets.


Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Marot, John. The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect. Brill, 2012.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.