Why was the Russian Revolution in November

German Revolution 1918/19

Ernst Piper

Born in Munich in 1952, now lives in Berlin. He is an adjunct professor of modern history at the University of Potsdam and has published numerous books on the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, most recently "Night over Europe. Cultural history of the First World War" (2014) and "Rosa Luxemburg. A life" ( 2018).

The Russian Revolution in 1917 overthrew the tsarist regime and established a socialist republic. Russia was the European country in which, according to Marxist theory, a revolution was at least to be expected and the least promising.

March 23, 1917, Petrograd. Funeral procession on Nevsky Prospect with victims of the February Revolution. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

In Petrograd, as the Russian capital St. Petersburg was called from 1914, there were - similar to the cities of other belligerent states - in the third year of the First World War demonstrations of desperate people who were starving and who increasingly wanted bread and peace. Tsarist Russia was neither militarily nor economically up to the demands of the war. The lack of success on the battlefields had resulted in a great loss of confidence in the leadership of the country and a growing tiredness of war.

On March 8, 1917, strikes broke out in Petrograd, which quickly turned into a general strike. Thereupon Tsar Nicholas II gave the order to the Cossacks, militarily organized equestrian associations, to use force against the demonstrators. The Cossacks were hesitant to obey this order, but the clashes resulted in several deaths. But the people did not let themselves be stopped, meanwhile hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the whole city and several Cossacks allied themselves with them.

On March 12, the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison also joined the uprising that soon ruled the entire city. The next day, the troops that the Tsar had sent to Petrograd also defected to the rebels. The Duma, the parliament elected in 1912, met again after a long break and on March 15, Nicholas II had to abdicate. The Romanov dynasty had ruled for 300 years, now the tsarist rule was over. The first Prime Minister of the Russian Republic was Prince Georgi Evgenyevich Lvov, who headed a provisional government.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who had spent the previous years in exile in Switzerland because of his anti-tsarist activities, boarded a special train in Zurich on April 9, after intensive negotiations with the German government, in which he and his companions could cross Germany without controls. He arrived in Petrograd late in the evening of April 16. Enthusiastic crowds awaited him on the station forecourt. Standing on an armored car, he gave his first speech, which ended with the words: "Long live the world socialist revolution!"

Lenin had prepared intensively for his return and he was determined to gain control of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (Bolsheviks; RSDLP) as soon as possible. The very next day he spoke to Bolshevik members of the local Soviet "On the tasks of the proletariat in the current revolution". These "April theses" were published three days later in "Pravda", the party organ of the RSDLP [B], and already contained the core of its program: All power to the Soviets, end of the war, expropriation of large estates, nationalization of the banks and the formation of one National bank, foundation of a revolutionary international and renaming of the party, since the term "social democracy" was discredited by the civil peace policy of the parties of the Socialist International during the First World War.

On April 22nd, the article "On Dual Power" appeared in "Pravda", in which Lenin described the coexistence of the Duma and the Soviets, i.e. H. by parliament and councils, fundamentally criticized. At this point in time, he called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government, which was based on the Duma. Before that, however, the Bolsheviks would have to gain control of the councils, which they were still a long way from at the time.

In July 1917, however, there was a first spontaneous attempt at insurrection. He began on July 16 with a machine gun regiment refusing to go to the front. Instead, the armed soldiers marched through the streets of Petrograd. Around 500,000 workers quickly joined them and the next day 10,000 sailors from Kronstadt, but the planned general strike did not take place and the coordination between the revolutionary forces did not function properly.

Lenin praised the insurgents, but avoided getting drawn into the matter because, in his view, the spontaneous uprising was too unplanned and undisciplined. The prospects of success were uncertain, as was the takeover of the leadership by the Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, after the failure of the uprising on July 20, the government issued an arrest warrant for Lenin, accusing him of being a henchman for the German government. He had to flee Petrograd and did not return to the city until October 20th.

Prince Georgi Evgenjewitsch Lwow resigned as a result of the Juliet Uprising, his successor as Prime Minister was Alexander Fyodorowitsch Kerensky. For the time being, the dual power was actually ended, albeit not in the way Lenin had imagined, but in favor of the government. Like Lvov, Kerensky continued the war against the German Reich. That played into the hands of Lenin, because the population was extremely tired from war.

The continuation of the war and the simultaneous lack of military success led to a progressive destabilization of the domestic political situation. Kerensky's calculation of achieving a better negotiating position through a military offensive against the Central Powers did not work out and turned out to be counterproductive. In addition, the government did not take any initiative to promote the distribution of land to the impoverished farmers. There was a connection between the two topics because almost all civilian soldiers were farmers, because there was hardly any industrial workers in Russia at that time. So when the issue of land distribution did come up on the agenda, the soldiers were eager to be there, which made a resolute continuation of the war almost impossible.

Everything happened very quickly after Lenin's return. On October 21, he wrote the "Advice of an Outsider" in which he made very specific proposals for taking power. Two days later, his plea for the armed uprising was approved by ten to two votes at a conspiratorial night session in the Central Committee of the RSDLP [B]. His conviction that the uprising was inevitable and that any delay could result in death found a majority in the party's expanded central committee on October 29. On November 6th, Lenin left his illegal quarters and went to the Smolny Institute, where the Bolsheviks had their headquarters. The following day it was possible to occupy all strategically important points in the city, such as bridges and train stations, while the government holed up in the Winter Palace. Only a few soldiers were still willing to defend the government there, so that the much-cited "Storm on the Winter Palace" went quickly and comparatively bloodlessly. Kerensky had meanwhile left the city, otherwise the entire Provisional Government, which had been formed on March 15, was now in the hands of the Bolsheviks.

At the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which opened on November 7, the Bolsheviks were much more represented than at the first congress five months earlier. Although they did not have a majority, they profited considerably from the disagreement between their opponents. The left wing delegates of the Social Revolutionaries cooperated with the Bolsheviks, while on the other hand many Mensheviks and the moderate SRs left the Congress in protest when they learned that the members of the Provisional Government had been arrested. In their place came the Council of People's Commissars, chaired by Lenin. The management of the individual ministerial administrations was taken over by commissioners instead of the arrested ministers. Leon Trotsky was responsible for foreign affairs, and Joseph Stalin for nationality issues.

The Council of People's Commissars was supposed to be controlled by the All-Russian Congress of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants' Councils and by its central executive committee. Congress passed two prepared decrees on November 8, 1917, addressing the two most pressing issues. In the "Decree on Peace", "the workers and peasants' government created by the November 6-7 revolution" proposed immediate peace negotiations to the warring states. The "decree on land" decreed the expropriation of the landowners without compensation. There should be no more private property in land. The entire land was to be publicly owned and made available to those who worked it.

The congress proceeded according to an astonishingly precise script and was already over after two days. The delegates sang "Die Internationale" together and then drove back home. The overthrow was "militarily accomplished before it had even begun politically" (Manfred Hildermeier).

If the February Revolution was a real revolution, a regime change forced by the demonstrating masses, the October Revolution was a carefully planned military coup. The Bolsheviks had taken power by surprise, although at that time they had little support outside of Petrograd and Moscow. This became apparent as early as November 25th, when the election of the Constituent Assembly, the Constituent Assembly, still scheduled by the Provisional Government, took place. Only in these two cities did the Bolsheviks gain a majority of the votes, while in the countryside the Social Revolutionaries dominated. In total, the Bolsheviks received 168 out of 707 seats. They then tried to postpone the constitution of the newly elected parliament. When this was no longer possible, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee passed a decree on the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, which made it clear that the Soviets would not tolerate any power next to them. They did not want dual power, parliamentarism should be abolished, the separation of powers abolished.

The liberal parties were soon banned, and a little later the left-wing groups competing with the Bolsheviks were also banned. Demonstrations in support of the Constituent Assembly were brutally suppressed. In the Basic Law of the Russian Federal Socialist Soviet Republic, passed on July 10, 1918, the "dictatorship of the urban and rural proletariat and the poorest peasantry in the form of the powerful all-Russian Soviet power to completely suppress the bourgeoisie" was laid down. On December 20, 1917, the new secret police Cheka was founded, which ruthlessly took action against political opponents of the Soviet government. The resolution on the Red Terror of September 5, 1918, which consciously linked to the "Terreur" of the French Revolution, created the basis for the systematic annihilation of the anti-Bolshevik opposition. He broke with the tradition of the Socialist International, which had always rejected the death penalty. By the end of the civil war in 1922, hundreds of thousands of people were killed.