Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

The October Revolution allowed the Bolshevik Party to seize power from a weak coalition of liberals and moderate socialists and establish a Communist dictatorship.

Summary of Event

The October Revolution of the Bolsheviks took place on November 6-7, 1917 (or October 24-25, 1917, by the Julian calendar, which was then in use in Russia). It was the second revolution to happen in Russia that year, and through it Vladimir Ilich Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, seized power from the provisional government that had superseded the autocracy of the last Romanov czar of Russia, Nicholas II, in the February Revolution. The February Revolution had followed years of czarist misrule and the disastrous impact on Russia of World War I, during which the Russian armies had endured stunning defeats and deep privations had been inflicted on the Russian people at home. In the second week of March, workers and soldiers in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed during the war) had revolted and joined forces, thereby forcing the abdication of Nicholas II. October Revolution (1917)
Bolsheviks;October Revolution
Russia;October Revolution
Bolshevik Party (Russia)
[kw]Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution (Nov. 6-7, 1917)
[kw]October Revolution, Bolsheviks Mount the (Nov. 6-7, 1917)
[kw]Revolution, Bolsheviks Mount the October (Nov. 6-7, 1917)
October Revolution (1917)
Bolsheviks;October Revolution
Russia;October Revolution
Bolshevik Party (Russia)
[g]Russia;Nov. 6-7, 1917: Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution[04380]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 6-7, 1917: Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution[04380]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 6-7, 1917: Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution[04380]
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;October Revolution
Nicholas II
[p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];October Revolution
Lvov, Georgy Yevgenyevich
Kerensky, Aleksandr Fyodorovich
Kornilov, Lavr Georgiyevich
Stalin, Joseph
Trotsky, Leon
Dzerzhinski, Feliks Edmundovich

The provisional government that had then come into power was born out of negotiations between the previously elected assembly, or Duma, a moderate group dominated by the property-owning classes, and the recently established Petrograd Soviet, or council, of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies a relatively moderate socialist organization but clearly to the left of the Duma. It was agreed that the Duma was to form the provisional government, which would rule until a new constitution was written for Russia by a popularly elected Constituent Assembly, but the Petrograd Soviet (with the exception of Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerensky) refused to participate because of the bourgeois nature of the Duma. The Petrograd Soviet regarded itself as the guardian of the working masses, who would in time transform the bourgeois revolution into a socialist one. The provisional government was composed mainly of Constitutional Democrats, Constitutional Democratic Party (Russia) or Cadets, and Octobrists, Octobrists (Russia) with Prince Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov as premier and the lone Socialist, Kerensky, as minister of justice. There now existed two centers of authority, the liberal provisional government and the leftist Petrograd Soviet, but the real power was in the hands of the latter. The Petrograd Soviet quickly decreed that the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison should not obey orders that conflicted with the Soviet’s commands. As news of the revolutionary events in Petrograd spread throughout Russia, workers, soldiers, and peasants elected local soviets that proclaimed their loyalty to the Petrograd Soviet rather than the provisional government.

Bolsheviks form a barricade on the streets of Petrograd in 1917.

(Library of Congress)

During the succeeding months, the absence of a strong central authority made it impossible for anything to be done about the terrible conditions facing Russia. The two most serious problems were the peasants’ demands for land and Russia’s future role in World War I. To the demand of the peasants that the great landed estates be divided among them without delay, the provisional government answered that this matter could be dealt with legally only by the Constituent Assembly, elections for which were to be held later in the year. This answer did not satisfy the peasants, whose thirst for land was equaled only by their desire for peace, and yet the provisional government alienated the peasants still further by making it clear that it intended to prosecute the war vigorously in close cooperation with the Allies in order to secure a victorious peace together with territorial annexations, namely, the Turkish Straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The insistence of the provisional government in pursuing these aims led, by May, to a serious clash with the Petrograd Soviet, which had approved continuing the war to defend Russian territory but had not approved fighting for the annexations. The crisis ended with a reorganization of the provisional government to include several members of the Petrograd Soviet as ministers. This “First Coalition,” in which Kerensky became minister of war, represented the successful effort of the Petrograd Soviet not only to impose its views on the provisional government but also to attempt to close the ranks of the Center and the moderate Left against the Bolsheviks.

The leader of this faction was Lenin, who had recently returned from exile in Switzerland with help from the German high command. Lenin found the situation in Russia much to his liking; it encouraged him and his lieutenants, among them Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, to begin plotting the takeover of the Petrograd Soviet and the overthrow of the provisional government. The German high command was ultimately proved correct in its assumption that Lenin would in time undermine the pro-Allied provisional government. Lenin, a leading Russian Marxist revolutionary since 1895 and, after 1903, the head of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, had a program that was perfectly attuned to the unanswered grievances of the workers, peasants, and soldiers. He called for an immediate end to the war, immediate seizure of land by the peasants, control of industry by committees of workers, and the transfer of power from the provisional government to the Soviets (“All power to the Soviets”), whose numbers were proliferating throughout Russia. Indeed, much of Lenin’s success may be attributed to his ability to understand the feelings and desires of the masses and to act accordingly.

Kerensky, however, lacked this ability, as was clearly demonstrated in June when he decided to launch an offensive against the Austro-German armies. A great victory at the front, he believed, would placate the discontented elements at home. Instead, the offensive was completely routed by July 7. In the wake of this disaster, the soldiers, sailors, and workers staged an uprising in Petrograd during July 16-18. A halfhearted attempt by the ill-prepared Bolsheviks to seize power was easily foiled by the government. Lenin fled into hiding in Finland; Trotsky was arrested along with several other leading Bolsheviks.

Kerensky now became premier in a second coalition of Liberals and moderate Socialists. The coup that Kerensky had weathered from the Left was in September matched by one from the Right led by General Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov, recently appointed supreme commander of Russia’s armies. Supported by conservative elements and property owners, this coup was directed against the Petrograd Soviet and probably against Kerensky as well. By September 14, the coup had collapsed, primarily because Kornilov’s troops refused to obey him. Kornilov’s movement also foundered because of the agitation carried on in his ranks by Bolshevik radicals, many of whom, including Trotsky, the government had released from prison to assist its cause. Kerensky won only a Pyrrhic victory, for his government was unable to contain the spread of popular unrest. Regular deliveries of food and other supplies were becoming harder to obtain, and this drove increasingly desperate workers to take control of factories themselves. After the failure of Kornilov’s coup, the army began to disintegrate as entire units of peasant soldiers left the front to return to their villages. The arrival of armed deserters encouraged the impatient peasants to seize and divide up the privately owned estates. The provisional government almost completely lost control of the major cities, the army, and the countryside. Lenin and Trotsky now decided that the moment had come for them to seize power.

The Bolshevik Party had been growing progressively stronger since its defeat in the July coup. By August, its membership had grown to almost a quarter of a million, a tenfold increase since the start of the Russian Revolution in March. Significantly, the Bolsheviks secured a majority in both the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets during mid-September. Early in October, Trotsky was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet; later he became the head of the newly formed, Bolshevik-dominated Military Revolutionary Committee. Trotsky, as head of these organizations, had control of the Bolshevik militia, the Red Guard, and by the end of the month he managed to gain control of the Petrograd military garrison and contingents of sailors of the nearby Kronstadt naval base.

Lenin now emerged from hiding and, on October 23, convinced the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party that the moment had come to seize power. Finally, on the night of November 6, Bolshevik troops occupied key points in Petrograd and isolated the Winter Palace, headquarters of the Kerensky regime. The next morning, November 7, the Bolsheviks announced the fall of the provisional government. The Winter Palace, which held out until evening, was captured after a light skirmish in which a few lives were lost. Kerensky, who had left Petrograd in search of loyal troops to use against the Bolsheviks, managed to flee the country.


Lenin immediately began the consolidation of his power, a task he would not complete until the end of the Russian Civil War in 1921. In his efforts to assert authority outside the capital, he frequently encountered strong resistance from anti-Bolshevik elements. Moscow, for example, came under his control only after a week of fighting. Most of the great Russian heartland, Siberia, and Central Asia had come over, at least nominally, to the Bolshevik standard by the end of December, 1917. Years of bitter warfare lay ahead before these lands were brought under Bolshevik control. In Petrograd, meanwhile, Lenin issued two decrees in the meeting of the Bolshevik-dominated Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies during November 8-9. One decree declared an end to the war (a manner of terminating the conflict that did not satisfy the Germans), and the other handed land over to the peasants.

Lenin also created the new government of the state, the Council of People’s Commissars, Council of People’s Commissars a body made up entirely of Bolsheviks. Key figures in this cabinet were Lenin, the chairman; Stalin, commissar for national minorities; and Trotsky, commissar for foreign affairs. Lenin did allow the scheduled elections to the Constituent Assembly to take place within days of the Bolshevik takeover, but after permitting the assembly one meeting in January, 1918, he decreed its dissolution. To combat opposition to the Bolshevik dictatorship, Lenin established the Cheka Cheka (an acronym for the Russian for its official name, Extraordinary Commission to Fight the Counterrevolution and Sabotage) in December, 1917. Headed by Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinski, this secret police force, which resembled the czarist internal security force that had been disbanded after the abdication of Nicholas II, was empowered to bypass normal legal procedures in investigating and punishing opponents of the new order. In other moves early in 1918, Lenin dissolved all ties between the church and the state, introduced the Gregorian in place of the Julian calendar, and decreed the nationalization of the land given to the peasants in November. Finally, in March, Lenin completed the first stage of his consolidation of power by concluding a formal peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, transferring the Russian capital back to Moscow, and adopting the name “Communist Party” to describe his movement. Communist Party;Soviet Union

The success of the Bolshevik movement was by no means completely assured in March, 1918; years of hard fighting and bloodshed lay ahead. Russian Civil War (1918-1921) The measure of success that the Bolsheviks had achieved by this time, however, was attributable to at least two factors. Negatively, they had succeeded not because they had the support of a majority of the people, but rather because the majority had never been in sympathy with the provisional government; most Russians considered the provisional government as aloof and unconcerned about their welfare as had been the czar. On the positive side, it was much easier for people, whether Bolsheviks or not, to identify with the promises held out by Lenin for bread, peace, and land, promises he said would be fulfilled once he came to power.

In the last analysis, the real measure of the Bolsheviks’ success lay not in their assuming power but in their consolidating that power against overwhelming odds during the years 1918 to 1921. In that process, and in the years of growing authoritarian and repressive rule that followed, Lenin’s promise of bread, peace, and land seemed like a cruel joke. A famine of major proportions was unleashed as civil war brought only more turmoil and death, and in the long run the collectivization of agriculture deprived private ownership of land to everyone. The failure of the latter policy led to ongoing shortfalls in agricultural production that hampered economic development in the Soviet Union under Communist rule. October Revolution (1917)
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Further Reading

  • Abraham, Richard. Alexander Kerensky: The First Love of the Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. Sympathetic biography of a figure whom historians have often judged harshly.
  • Daniels, Robert V. Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. 1967. Reprint. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. Reconstructs the debates within the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee and describes the overthrow of the provisional government.
  • Katkov, George. Russia, 1917: The Kornilov Affair: Kerensky and the Break-up of the Russian Army. London: Longman, 1980. Defends General Kornilov against charges that he plotted to overthrow the provisional government.
  • Lincoln, W. Bruce. Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. Lively history shows the terrible impact of World War I and the revolution on Russia and its peoples.
  • Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Contains condensed versions of two earlier volumes on the revolution and its aftermath by a widely respected scholar of Russian history. Emphasizes the role of the radical intellectuals in shaping the course of the revolution.
  • Rabinowitch, Alexander. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. 1976. Reprint. London: Pluto Press, 2004. Provides a detailed account of events in Petrograd from July to the Bolshevik seizure of power. Stresses the importance to the revolution of the radicalization of popular opinion.
  • Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2000. Authoritative and well-rounded biography uses information recently available from Soviet archives to shed new light on Lenin. Includes illustrations.
  • Volkogonov, Dmitri. Lenin: A New Biography. Translated and edited by Harold Shukman. New York: Free Press, 1994. Biography by a former Soviet general makes use of previously unavailable secret documents from the Soviet archives.
  • Wolfe, Bertram. Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. 1964. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. One of the best histories of the Bolshevik Revolution available. The author was acquainted with several original Bolsheviks and lived for a time in Moscow.

Lenin Critiques Modern Capitalism

Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Russian Civil War

Lenin Establishes the Comintern

Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives