The canonical view of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, promulgated by Soviet history books and not a few Western fellow travelers, argues that it represented an inevitable, epochal movement of the masses, led by the Bolshevik Party with the full backing of the people. The truth was otherwise. The revolution was in actuality the culmination of a Bolshevik power play which had begun to take form a month and a half earlier. It was neither spontaneous nor universally backed. It was less a revolution than it was a coup d’etat.
There was an urgency to the Bolshevik effort to overthrow the Provisional Government—Russia’s fragile democratic regime. The Provisional Government had scheduled elections to the new national Constituent Assembly for late November. Knowing that his Bolsheviks might well lose the elections, Lenin had made it clear that they would need to seize Petrograd, Russia’s most important city, before that date. To this end, the Bolsheviks set about preparing their conspiracy. Its tool would be the Military Revolutionary Committee.
In September 1917, Lenin sent a letter to the Bolshevik Central Committee urging preparations for an armed revolt. The first step in that process, he made clear, was to take over the Petrograd Soviet. The “Soviet” was a city council of sorts, formed after the Tsar’s resignation in March 1917 of members of the socialist parties, factory workers, and striking military units. It existed alongside the Provisional Government, which technically remained the highest political authority in Russia. During the summer, the Bolsheviks had formed only a small minority of the Soviet’s membership. But after an attempted military coup in August was defeated by Bolshevik workers, they gained popularity. On October 8, the Bolsheviks won a new round of elections to the Soviet; their members immediately made Leon Trotsky chairman.
Their next step was to arm the Soviet in preparation to seize the city. But while they enjoyed broad support among the city’s workers, the Bolsheviks lacked organized military formations that could guarantee the success of their planned coup. Besides, as Trotsky recalled, “the soldiers still trusted the [Socialist Revolutionary] and Menshevik windbags”— members of competing political parties.
Lacking direct control over the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, who were controlled by the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks decided to use the Soviet to further their goals and give them the veneer of broader support. Thus, on October 22, Trotsky proposed a “revolutionary defense committee” to the Central Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. This committee would get to know the garrison and the capitol’s defenses and acquire arms to organize the left’s most loyal forces among the workers. But the Central Executive Committee still had a majority of non-Bolshevik members. Suspicious of the Bolsheviks’ proposal, which they correctly saw as preparatory measures for a coup, the Mensheviks and other parties voted it down.
Defeated in his first effort, Trotsky then assembled a full “plenary” session of the Soviet; there, hundreds of Bolshevik party members filled the hall and loudly affirmed the Bolshevik’s proposal. Thus the Military Revolutionary Committee (VRK) came into being. The new VRK was to assemble for the first time on November 2. In the meantime, Lenin and Trotsky made sure that their own members would predominate. Five members of the Bolshevik Central Committee, including Joseph Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, were selected to stage-manage the new body and guarantee a voting majority.
This VRK leadership spent much of its first week in mass gatherings with elements of the Petrograd garrison. Their aim was to get soldiers and sailors to assent, through a voice vote, to transferring their allegiance from the Provisional Government’s Petrograd Military District to the Military Revolutionary Committee, controlled by the Soviet. This move was largely successful, thanks to Trotsky’s oratory and to a fatal misstep by the Provisional Government. Petrograd’s soldiers and sailors had been angered in mid-October by news that the Provisional Government planned to order the garrison out of the city to fight the Germans. The VRK assured the soldiers that it had no intention of deploying them against the Germans, making the transfer of loyalty all the easier. Nevertheless, at this juncture, only a minority of the garrison indicated any support for the Bolsheviks or their rumored coup.
Satisfied that the VRK had neutralized or coopted the Petrograd garrison, Trotsky summoned the Soviet on November 6. Declaring that Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, was “on the offensive,” he mobilized the VRK. A struggle over a printing press enabled Trotsky to frame the planned coup attempt as a defensive measure to protect the Petrograd Soviet. Soldiers who would not fight for the Bolsheviks as a party might fight for the Soviet, the one elected body that seemed to be representing their interests. Beginning on November 6, Bolsheviks and soldiers reporting to the VRK seized key positions throughout the city.
The famed climax of the revolution would come during the night of November 8. The boom and flash of gunfire sounded across the Neva River in the direction of the Winter Palace. This symbol of Tsarism was now the last refuge of the Russian Provisional Government. For the last day and a half, the palace itself had been under a tight cordon ordered by the VRK. At two in the morning, orders flew down to the barricades for the final assault. Trotsky would later recall “phantasmagoric meetings and clashes” between heavily armed soldiers in the hallways of the Palace take place. This image of a maddened mob overrunning the seat of national power was more propaganda than reality. So too was the description of intense fighting in the old Palace: there had been almost no resistance.
Instead, the conquest of the Winter Palace had been achieved with a two-day siege in which the Bolsheviks successfully deployed artillery, an array of army units, workers formed into Red Guard formations, several armored car squads, and the supporting fire of a naval detachment of five ships from the Baltic Fleet. This was possible thanks only to their success in establishing the pretense of legitimacy in the form of the VRK. Some of those same soldiers and sailors, thus duped into supporting the Bolshevik regime, would find the realities of Bolshevik rule intolerable. Three and a half years later, they would mutiny in the very same city, leading a revolt against Lenin that would cost more than two thousand of them their lives.
Note: all dates in this article are provided according to the New Style calendar.