The final destruction of the Provisional Government and the rise to power of the Bolsheviks under Lenin in October of 1917 was a “directed” revolution, guided by a relatively small group of extreme Leftist revolutionaries. Mass unrest and political polarization weakened the political center in Russia, and allowed the Bolsheviks to gain a large following during the course of 1917, despite both an initial lack of support and significant setbacks during that year. And while this unrest certainly played a vital role in allowing the possibility of a revolution, it was the Bolsheviks’ machinations which shaped and directed that unrest, and which ultimately brought Lenin and his party to power in Russia. Because of this indirect support from many in Russia for a government apart from the Provisional one, the revolution was not purely a coup d’état, nor was it the spontaneous surge of a popular revolution, but occupied a middle-ground between the two, having had both some popular support and essential leadership in the Bolshevik Party, manifest most visibly in Lenin.
The polarization of the political landscape in Russia during the tenure of the Provisional Government and the simultaneous decline in support for that government were critical factors in the Bolsheviks’ ability to carry out their coup (Figes 448-9). This polarization came primarily as a result of the ineffectual means by which the Provisional Government continued Russian participation in the Great War. Most significantly, the failure of the so-called Kerensky Offensive in July of 1917 effected widespread disenchantment with the Provisional Government, and particularly with Kerensky, who associated himself with that offensive. As the most visible member of the government at the time, Kerensky was blamed, somewhat rightly, for the failure of the offensive against the Austrians in the West. With little knowledge of the realities of both troop morale at the front and widespread war weariness at home, Kerensky foolhardily threw the forces under the Provisional Government’s command at the Austro-Hungarian lines. Initially successful, the offensive soon dissolved as Russian troops fled from their advancing German counterparts, evidentiary of the complete unwillingness to continue the war on behalf of the Provisional Government (Pipes 123-5). Along with this more material failure came rumors concerning Kerensky’s personal life and habits that effected further deterioration of his image, and, by proxy, the image of the Provisional Government among the masses (Figes 437-8). The Provisional Government’s continued refusal ⎯ or inability, depending on one’s viewpoint ⎯ to convene the oft-promised Constituent Assembly added yet another negative dimension to its image. In addition, the government’s further refusal to create any significant regulation concerning the most important issues of the day ⎯ land reform, workers’ rights, regional governments, etc. ⎯ only stoked the flame of Russian discontent with Kerensky and his government (Figes 447-8).
As a result of these failures and the image projected by the Provisional Government to the common man, political polarization ripped the political landscape of Russia apart at its seams, drawing hundreds into the ranks of the Bolshevik Party (Pipes 136), whose numbers had been severely diminished as a result of the failure of the riots in July of 1917 (Pipes 129). The Left, unsatisfied with the unwillingness of the government to adopt significant concessions to effect land reform, etc., withdrew much of its support, in favor of a Soviet-led government excluding the liberals and Rightists (Figes 454). The Right, disgusted with the government’s willingness to play supplicant to the Soviet, withdrew much of its support in favor of a return to a more dictatorial form of government, led, of course, by one of their own supporters (Figes 479). The creation of a vacuum in the political center of Russia lent itself to instability within the government, whose main supporters and members were of that political strife (Figes 447). It might have died an earlier death than in October had the more moderate Leftists not joined it, hoping to lend it enough stability to allow it to survive until the convocation of a new government. This action, however, only invited Bolshevik exploitation of both the popular domestic unrest and the lack of available alternatives in governmental policy (Pipes 119-120).
The Bolsheviks under Lenin represented the only major party in Russia wholly opposed to Russian participation in the Great War. Also, due to their lack of involvement in the Provisional Government, they appeared to the Russian populace, and particularly to the urban proletariat, as the only viable alternative willing to represent their interests in the governance of Russia. The Bolsheviks took advantage of this image by making promises to several groups, on which they would later renege (Pipes 120). For example, they promised the rural peasantry ownership of the lands through land reform, only to collectivize those lands and peasants later under Stalin. Capitalizing on their image as militant revolutionaries, they presented a stark contrast with Kerensky and his government, which were seen as ineffectual and as having feminine qualities (Figes 437-8). The Bolsheviks, at least in the public image they presented, evoked no such qualities, and prescribed violence as the predominant solution to social ills. This made them the natural party for those disaffected by the failures of the Provisional Government and the perceived over-moderated nature of the non-Bolshevik Leftist politicians (Pipes 136). Indeed, by the time of October, Bolshevik support was such that it constituted a true political party on a national scale, with regional parties and significant urban support for its platform (Figes 457).
But this does not mean that the revolution in October of 1917 was a popular one. Indeed, it might have dissolved into mere rioting were it not for decisive action from Bolshevik chiefs, particularly from Lenin and Trotsky (Pipes 144). The machinations for the October uprising began in early October at Lenin’s behest, and with opposition from several members of the Bolshevik Central Committee (Figes 477). Lenin’s not wanting to wait until the convocation of the Constituent Assembly in November of 1917 to carry out the uprising is indicative of his fear of a lack of sufficient support among Russia’s population, especially its peasant component. He believed that the peasants would support the Socialists-Revolutionaries Party rather than the Bolsheviks, and that before its convocation would be their last chance to stage a successful uprising (Pipes 139). The Bolsheviks were, however, supported by those on the Right, who thought a Bolshevik government would founder under its own policies, clearing the way for a Rightist dictatorship (Figes 479). Likewise, the non-Bolshevik Leftists, with little sympathy for the Kerensky and the Provisional Government and continued feelings of revolutionary comradeship, felt no obligation to prevent such an uprising (Figes 478). Lenin planned to use this lack of resistance, and the Military Revolutionary Committee and Red Guards, to seize power from the government by military means in what has become, accurately or not, a classic example of coup d’état.
Legitimacy was given to the Bolshevik cause when Kerensky foolishly ordered the Petrograd garrison, within which there was abundant support for the Bolshevik platform, to the Northern Front. This was seen through the lens of Bolshevik propaganda to be counter-revolutionary action on the part of Kerensky and his Provisional Government, and calls to defend the Soviet were issued. The Military Revolutionary Committee, under heavy influence from the Bolsheviks, sent commissars to lead the rank and file of the Petrograd Garrison against these “counter-revolutionaries.” They then seized important points in the capital city, eventually taking the Tauride Palace itself (Figes 480-1). The “supporters” of the Bolshevik cause who took to the streets during this time were composed of either the rank-and file of the Bolshevik Party or those workers and soldiers who thought it their mission to defend the capital of the Revolution, and more specifically the Soviet, from those “counter-revolutionaries” who had infiltrated and controlled the provisional government (Pipes 121-2). Only a small proportion of the soldiers and workers in Petrograd actively supported the Bolshevik uprising by taking to the streets during those days in October. Additionally, some of those on the streets had merely taken part because of the possibility of loot, and in many parts of the city and elsewhere in the country, “revolutionaries” would take part in acts of vandalism and violence that the Bolsheviks would blame on instigation by the bourgeoisie (Figes 493-4).
Regardless of the relatively small proportion of Petrograd citizens that participated in the uprising, it is still significant that the entire city of Petrograd was taken with little or no resistance to Bolshevik force of arms (Figes 491). This shows that, while most citizens did not actively support the uprising, they did not actively oppose it either, indicating that there was significant sympathy among the Petrograd population for the aims of the Bolsheviks and for the creation of a new government. The case was quite different in Moscow, where there was intense fighting between forces loyal to the Provisional government and those proclaiming the new Bolshevik government (Figes 497-8). This evidence lends itself to the conclusion that the Bolshevik uprising ought to be defined in national terms as a coup d’état, and that, in terms of Petrograd, a more robust revolutionary conception is appropriate.
Because of the growing support for the Bolshevik Party in the months leading up to the uprising and widespread and mass support for the replacement of the Provisional Government, and because there was little active support for the Bolsheviks during the October uprising, those days in October cannot be defined purely in terms of either popular revolution or coup d’état, but must lie somewhere in between these two conceptions. It also means that, while the leaders of the Bolshevik Party were essential to the success of the uprising, some degree of mass support was also essential to that success.
Figes, Orlando. A people’s tragedy : the Russian Revolution 1891-1924. Cape, London : 1996.
Lincoln, W. Bruce. In war’s dark shadow : the Russians before the Great War. Dial Press, New York : 1983.
Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. Knopf Inc, New York : 1995.