Between 25 and 26 October 1917 the final and decisive act of the Russian revolution, which had commenced in February of the same year, took place. The Provisional Government was overturned with relatively little blood being spilled, however before the Soviet Republic could be established, it was to undergo the tremendous turmoil of civil war.
The October Revolution, which led to the fall of the Provisional Government on 25 October 1917 and the Bolsheviks seizing power in Russia, differed considerably from the 1917 February Revolution. As noted by the American historian Richard Pipes, it was in fact a classic coup d’état, carried out with the apparent support of the masses, but without these actively taking part in it.
Two distinct stages can be identified in the Bolshevik revolution: during the first, which lasted from Lenin’s return to Petrograd in April 1917 up to July 1917, attempts were made to overthrow the Provisional Government through continuous demonstrations in the streets; the second stage saw the delegitimisation of the Provisional Government. In a speech made before the Bolshevik activists on 4 April (the April Theses), Lenin refused to support the Provisional Government demanding that all authority be transferred to the Soviets and announcing the need to move on to the second stage of the revolution. The Bolsheviks made an initial attempt to seize power at the end of April on the pretext of a dispute between the Government and the Petrograd Soviet over the way the war was being waged. The Soviet wanted to continue the war until a victorious conclusion was reached but to end it in peace without any annexations or reparations, while the Foreign Minister, Pavel Milyukov intended to claim the Turkish territories and Constantinople, which had been promised by the Allies in 1915. The Bolsheviks joined the soldiers demonstrating in the streets, spurred on by young officials chanting slogans calling for the Government to resign and for power to be turned over to the Soviet. As was reported by the Commander of the Petrograd military district, General Lavr Kornilov, the Government refused to suppress the demonstrations by force, and order was only finally restored thanks to the agreement reached with the All-Russian Central Executive Committee.
The April protests sparked off a crisis within the Government, which led to the creation of a new coalition government headed by Georgy L'vov and included socialist representatives from the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks remained outside the Government, which gave them the opportunity to present themselves as the only alternative to bourgeois power and depict themselves as the true guardians of the Revolution. Though they could count on much less support than other Socialist parties, they did have the best paramilitary organisation (the Red Guards) and a precise political programme.
Thanks to the propaganda campaign carried out by Lenin on the factory committees and amongst military personnel, there was a sharp increase in consensus amongst workers and soldiers. On 10 June the Bolsheviks decided to organise a mass demonstration with the presence of armed militants, which was then cancelled on request of the Petrograd Soviet. Another Bolshevik coup was attempted in July 1917, which exploited the discontent of the soldiers after the government’s decision to send several units from the Petrograd garrison to the front. The revolts led by the Bolshevik military organisation, though ending in disaster, undermined the foundations of the Government and contributed to further consolidate the Bolshevik ranks.
After the July Days, Lvov resigned and the Prime Minister’s portfolio passed over to Alexander Kerensky. According to Pipes, the new prime minister was more concerned about the monarchist counter-revolution than a possible coup by the Bolsheviks, and underestimated the strength of Lenin’s movement. Due to a controversy with the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov, who in late August 1917 was accused of treason and attempting to seize power, Kerensky closed down the liberal and conservative clubs in the armed forces. At the same time, in a country where anarchy was rife, and threatened by a new offensive from Germany, support grew amongst the people for the Bolsheviks, who by mid September had a majority amongst the military members of the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow. In September 1917 Lev Trotsky became president of the Petrograd Soviet. He however avoided taking part personally in the revolutionary uprisings so as to give the impression that the insurrection was a direct expression of the Petrograd Soviet. His position differed from the idea put forward by Lenin, who had taken refuge since 29 July in Finland, and called for armed revolt. In the end, it was decided that the coup would take place on the eve of the Second Congress of Soviets on 25 October while the Assembly would be requested to approve the new state of affairs without opposing it. On 21-22 October the Revolutionary Military Committee (Milrevcom) assumed control over the city’s military garrison on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet.
The final act of the insurrection commenced in the morning of 24 October, when a small pro-government force decided to hold off the attack by the Bolsheviks and guard the Winter Palace, the residence of the Prime Minister and seat of the Provisional Government. These feeble forces numbered a few members of the minor nobility, 140 female soldiers from the Women’s Death Battalion, a group of Cossacks, a unit of bicycle infantry and 40 war invalids. On the same day an order was issued for the arrest of the Bolshevik Commissars. On the night between 24 and 25 October, the Bolshevik units assumed control of the city’s main strategic locations without encountering any resistance. Lenin, who in the meantime had returned to Petrograd, drew up a document claiming the takeover of power (To the citizens of Russia!).
The Provisional Government was overturned and state administration passed into the hands of the representatives of the workers and soldiers of Petrograd. These did not however allow the Soviet Congress to be opened until all the members of the government had been arrested. At 18:30 of 25 October, the revolutionary military committee demanded that the Government surrender. At 21.40, the first blanks were fired at the Winter Palace from the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Aurora cruiser anchored at Novaya. Shots however were fired randomly. The Peter and Paul Fortress artillery fired over thirty shells though only two actually hit the upper floors of the Palace.
On 26 October at 02:10, the Bolsheviks broke through the barricade erected by the nobles and conquered the Winter Palace, arresting the members of the government present. Kerensky had meanwhile fled from Petrograd that morning in the vain attempt to convince the Cavalry Corps stationed outside the city to intervene in the Government’s defence.
In the meantime, in the Columns Hall of the Smolny Institute, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies was opened, and approved two Decrees by Lenin, one on peace and one on the distribution of land. The Second Congress concluded with the appointment of a new government – the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) – led by Lenin.