Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why Bolsheviks Succeeded in their November 1917 Revolt?

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth”
— Vladimir Lenin

What is it to you almost 100 years after the fact? Is it important? Yes, it is. The day was a beginning of the November Bolshevik Revolt in Russia, which threw the biggest country in the World in the Communist Chaos for 70 years, and significantly influenced the fate of other geographical regions.

Let’s take a brief peek…

The confusion starts from the very beginning. The revolution is called October Revolution, but it started exactly 94 years ago, November 6, 1917 by the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time (count back 13 days to get the date by the modern calendar, later accepted in Russia as well).

There are many historical points, where we can start the journey, explaining this turnaround point in the history, and the closest one in time is so-called February Revolution 1917. Yes, Russians were happy enough to get two revolutions in one year.

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February 1917 Revolution

On 23rd February 1917 the International Women's Day Festival in St. Petersburg turned into a city-wide demonstration, as exasperated women workers left factories to protest against food shortages. Men soon joined them, and on the following day - encouraged by political and social activists - the crowds had swelled and virtually every industry, shop and enterprise had ceased to function as almost the entire populace went on strike.

Nicholas ordered the police and military to intervene, however the military was no longer loyal to the Tsar and many mutinied or joined the people in demonstrations. Fights broke out and the whole city was in chaos. On February 28th over 80,000 troops mutinied from the army and looting and rioting was widespread.

Faced with this untenable situation Tsar Nicholas abdicated his throne, handing power to his brother Michael. However Michael would not accept leadership unless he was elected by the Duma. He resigned the following day, leaving Russia without a head of state.

After the abdication of the Romanovs a Provisional Government was quickly formed by leading members of the Duma and recognized internationally as Russia's legal government. It was to rule Russia until elections could be held. However its power was by no means absolute or stable. The more radical Petrograd Soviet organization was a trade union of workers and soldiers that wielded enormous influence. It favored full-scale Socialism over more moderate democratic reforms generally favored by members of the Provisional Government.

After centuries of Imperial rule Russia was consumed with political fervor, but the many different factions, all touting different ideas, meant that political stability was still a long way off directly after February Revolution.

Between Revolutions

One person keen to take advantage of the chaotic state of affairs in St. Petersburg was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - aka Lenin. Lenin had spent most of the 20th Century travelling and working and campaigning in Europe - partly out of fear for his own safety, as he was known Socialist and enemy of the Tsarist regime. However with the Tsar under arrest and Russian politics in chaos, Lenin saw the opportunity to lead his party, the Bolsheviks, to power. From his home in Switzerland he negotiated a return to Russia with the help of German authorities. (As a proponent of withdrawing Russia from the Great War, the Germans were willing to facilitate Lenin's passage back via a 'sealed train'.)

Lenin's return in April of 1917 was greeted by the Russian populace, as well as by many leading political figures, with great rapture and applause. However, far from uniting the fractious parties, he immediately condemned the policies and ideologies of both the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet. In his April Theses, published in the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, he advocated non-co-operation with the liberals (ie. non-hardline Communists) and an immediate end to the war.

At first his uncompromising stance served to isolate Lenin and the Bolsheviks, however with powerful slogans like 'Peace, land and bread,' Lenin begin to win the hearts of the Russian people - who were increasingly unable to stomach war and poverty.

During the summer of 1917 Lenin made several attempts to invoke another revolution the likes of which had taken place in February, with the aim of overthrowing the Provisional Government. When the Machine Gun Regiment refused to leave Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then known) for the frontline Lenin sought to maneuver them instead into making a putsch. However Kerensky, arguably the most important figure of the time - a member of both the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet - adeptly thwarted the coup. Experienced troops arrived in the city to quell any dissidents and the Bolsheviks were accused of being in collusion with the Germans. Many were arrested whilst Lenin escaped to Finland.

Despite this PR disaster Lenin continued plotting and scheming. Meanwhile Kerensky suffered his own political setbacks and even had to appeal to the Bolsheviks for military aid when he feared his Minister of War, Kornilov, was aiming for a military dictatorship. By autumn the Bolsheviks were climbing into the ascendency, winning majority votes within the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. Leon Trotsky was elected as president of the former.

The October Revolution

With Russian politics still in a state of constant flux Lenin realized that now was the time to capitalize on his party's popularity. He planned a coup that would overthrow the increasingly ineffective Provisional Government and replace them with the Bolsheviks. On October 10th he held a famous meeting with twelve party leaders, and tried to persuade them that a revolution was required. Despite receiving the backing of only 10 of them plotting went ahead.

November 6th, the Petrograd Soviet was meeting in the Smolny Institute - a former girls school. Speeches were made by Trotsky as to why people should support the communists. While he was giving these speeches, he knew that the Red Guards and armed workers were actually taking over key points in the city. By the time that the speeches had finished most of the city was in the hands of the Bolsheviks (communists led by Lenin) - as Trotsky had planned. The telephone and telegraph buildings were taken over, as were the power stations. Bridges were captured. So were the railway stations.

There was very little bloodshed and it is probable that many people in Petrograd were unaware of what had happened when they woke up in the morning. In fact, while the communists were taking power, theatres and cinemas were still open!!

Throughout the 7th the Red Guards kept on occupying important buildings. By mid-afternoon, the only building not held by the Bolsheviks was the Winter Palace, the old home of the tsar. It was here that the Provisional Government met. In fact, the troops who were meant to be defending the building had gone home and only the Women’s Battalion remained.

The sign for the Red Guards to attack the Winter Palace was a shell fired by the naval ship the "Aurora". The attack was short lived and any opposition was easily overcome. The Provisional Government surrendered to the Red Guards. The attack took longer than it might have done because there were 1000 rooms in the Palace that they had to search.

In the Smolny Institute, those politicians who did not agree with what had happened and did not want the Bolsheviks in power walked out of the building. Trotsky said that they were going to where they belonged - the waste-paper basket of history.

At 1 a.m. on November 8th, a shabbily dressed man got to his feet and rose to speak. He took away a handkerchief from his face and was instantly recognized as Lenin. He told those in the Smolny Institute that he was forming a government of Bolsheviks and that it would contain no middle class people. The government would work to help the workers and peasants.

By the end of the day the members of the Provisional Government were under arrest. Lenin's statement that he would overturn the government of Russia - made after his brother had been executed - was fulfilled.

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Why did the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 succeed?

The investigation of the reasons, underground sources and motivations of the different parties, groups, and individual people is quite a complicated task. Multiple studies are published in Russia and other parts of the World on the topic, and the outcomes are so different and controversial, depending on the authors’ political views and used sources, that the topic deserves a big scientific monograph. We will provide in brief several moments, which contributed to the miracle – a small group of extremists was able to get to the power in huge multi-cultural, multi-national country with traditional believes in higher authority and G-d.

1.       February Revolution. The first revolution opened the door to the revolutionary process in the country. People saw that the Tsar was out of the picture fast and easily. Hey, that was just beginning. Nice slogans, feeling of freedom and for the bright future for everyone. People were ready for change.
2.       Provisional Government problems. The Bolsheviks succeeded because the Provisional Government was weak and unpopular.  Some of the people in the Provisional Government were smart and wished good, but they did not understand the psychology and simple desires of the masses:  bread and entertainment. While being in power, provisional government was not able to secure solid support among different groups, and create loyal military. When it was attacked, nobody was prepared to defend it. On 25th October, only Women's Battalion attempted to defend the Winter Palace against Bolshevik forces. John Reed, an American journalist in Petrograd during the revolution wrote ‘What happened to the women?’ we asked a soldier. He laughed. ‘We found them hiding in a back room … crying. We did not know what to do with them; in the end we just sent them home. Other sources offered a different account on the consequences, claiming that some of the girl-soldiers had been thrown from the windows into the street, most of the rest had been violated, and many had committed suicide as a result of the horrors they had gone through.

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3.       Slogans. The Bolsheviks had attractive, easy to say and easy to understand, slogans such as ‘Peace, Bread, Land’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets’.  Other parties claimed they could never deliver their promises, but their arguments were too complicated for people to understand.  This meant that they got the public’s support.
4.       Pravda. The party ran its own propaganda machine, including the newspaper Pravda (‘Truth’), which got their ideas across.
5.       German money. Germany was gradually losing the war, so they were looking for the ways to turn things around, other than on the battlefield. The Germans financed the Bolsheviks because they Lenin promised them to take Russia out of the war. This gave Bolsheviks the money to mount their publicity campaigns, and some other support in information and planning.
6.       Lenin. A brilliant leader – a professional revolutionary with an iron will, ruthless, brilliant speaker, a good planner with ONE aim – to overthrow the government. 
7.       Army. While Provisional Government was playing its intellectual games, Bolsheviks was secretly working on building their private army (the Red Guards), dedicated to the revolution, which was set up and trained under outstanding military organizer Leon Trotsky and funded not exclusively by German money but by donation of the rich revolution-oriented citizens, who has not imagine in their worst dreams, where their money will lead Russia. Well-organized Red Guards groups gave the Bolsheviks the military power to win.
8.       Organization. The Bolsheviks had solid well-built organization, sharpened by years of the illegal political activity underground.  A central committee (controlled by Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks) sent orders to the soviets, who gave orders to the factories. The difference with most of the other liberal parties at the time was that Bolsheviks in practice embraced freedom for the people only in case, when it is aligned with the ideas and tasks of the Global Revolution. Unlike the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks demanded total obedience from their members, so they were well-disciplined. From a tiny group, the membership grew up to 2 million in 3 months.

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