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The Russian Revolution of 1917

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Troubled Months

As the Provisional Government attempted to negotiate a way through the many different hopes for Russia, the war continued in the background. All but the Bolsheviks and Monarchists initially worked together in a period of shared joy, and decrees were passed reforming aspects of Russia. However, the issues of land and the war were side stepped, and it was these that would destroy the Provisional Government as its factions grew increasingly drawn to the left and right. In the country, and across Russia, central government collapsed and thousands of localized, ad hoc committees formed to govern. Chief among these were village / peasant bodies, based heavily on the old communes, which organised the seizure of land from the landowning nobles. Historians like Figes have described this situation not as just ‘dual power’, but as a ‘multitude of local power’.

When the anti-war soviets discovered the new Foreign Minister had kept the Tsar’s old war aims – partly because Russia was now dependent upon credit and loans from its allies to avoid bankruptcy - demonstrations forced a new, semi-socialist coalition government into creation. Old revolutionaries now returned to Russia, including one called Lenin, who soon dominated the Bolshevik faction. In his April Theses and elsewhere, Lenin called for the Bolsheviks to shun the Provisional Government and prepare for a new revolution, a view many colleagues openly disagreed with. The first ‘All-Russian Congress of Soviets’ revealed that the socialists were deeply divided over how to proceed, and the Bolsheviks were in a minority.

The July Days

As the war continued the anti-war Bolsheviks found their support growing. On July 3 -5th a confused armed uprising by soldiers and workers in the name of the Soviet failed. This was the ‘July Days’. Historians are divided over who was actually behind the revolt. Pipes has argued it was an attempted coup directed by Bolshevik high command, but Figes has presented a convincing account in his ‘A People’s Tragedy’ which argues that the uprising started when the Provisional Government tried to move a pro-Bolshevik unit of soldiers to the front. They rose up, people followed them, and low level Bolsheviks and anarchists pushed the rebellion along. The top level Bolsheviks like Lenin refused to either order the seizure of power, or even give the rebellion any direction or blessing, and the crowds milled aimlessly about when they could easily have taken power had someone pointed them in the right direction. Afterwards, the government arrested major Bolsheviks, and Lenin fled the country, his reputation as a revolutionary weakened by his lack of readiness.

Shortly after Kerensky became Prime Minister of a new coalition which pulled both left and right as he tried to forge a middle path. Kerensky was notionally a socialist, but was in practice closer to the middle class and his presentation and style initially appealed to liberals and socialists alike. Kerensky attacked the Bolsheviks and called Lenin a German agent - Lenin was still in the pay of German forces - and the Bolsheviks were in serious disarray. They could have been destroyed, and hundreds were arrested for treason, but other socialist factions defended them; the Bolsheviks would not be so kind when it was the other way round.

The Right Intervenes?

In August 1917 the long feared right wing coup appeared to be attempted by General Kornilov who, afraid the soviets would take power, tried to take it instead. However, historians believe that this ‘coup’ was much more complicated, and not really a coup at all. Kornilov did try and convince Kerensky to accept a programme of reforms which would have effectively placed Russia under a right wing dictatorship, but he proposed this on behalf of the Provisional Government to protect it against the Soviet, rather than to seize power for himself.

There then followed a catalogue of confusions, as a possibly mad intermediary between Kerensky and Kornilov gave the impression that Kerensky had offered dictatorial powers to Kornilov, while at the same time giving the impression to Kerensky that Kornilov was taking power alone. Kerensky took the opportunity to accuse Kornilov of attempting a coup in order to rally support around him, and as the confusion continued Kornilov concluded that Kerensky was a Bolshevik prisoner and ordered troops forward to free him. When the troops arrived in Petrograd they realised nothing was happening and stopped. Kerensky ruined his standing with the right, who were fond of Kornilov, and was fatally weakened by appealing to the left, as he had agreed to the Petrograd Soviet forming a ‘Red Guard’ of 40,000 armed workers to prevent counter revolutionaries like Kornilov. The Soviet needed the Bolsheviks to do this, as they were the only ones who could command a mass of local soldiers, and were rehabilitated. People believed the Bolsheviks had stopped Kornilov.

Hundreds of thousand went on strike in protest at the lack of progress, radicalised once more by the attempted right wing coup. The Bolsheviks had now become a party with more support, even as their leaders argued over the right course of action, because they were almost the only ones left arguing for pure soviet power, and because the main socialist parties had been branded failures for their attempts to work with the government. The Bolshevik rallying cry of ‘peace, land and bread’ was popular. Lenin switched tactics and recognised peasant land seizures, promising a Bolshevik redistribution of land. Peasants now began to swing in behind the Bolsheviks and against the Provisional Government which, composed partly of land holders, was against the seizures. It’s important to stress the Bolsheviks were not supported purely for their policies, but because they seemed to be the soviet answer.

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