Tony Cliff

Lenin 3 – Revolution Besieged

1. The Bolshevik Government’s First Steps

On 25 October (7 November) the Bolsheviks took control in Petrograd. When Lenin came out of hiding after nearly four months, he said to Trotsky: ‘You know, from persecution and life underground, to come so suddenly into power ...’ – he paused for the right word. ‘Es schwindet (it makes one giddy)’, he concluded, changing suddenly to German, and circling his hand around his head. [1]

Lenin himself was in doubt as to how long the Bolsheviks would be able to hold power. Capitalist, Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary circles were convinced that they could not survive for more than a few days. ‘We are absolutely certain that the Bolsheviks will not be able to organize state power,’ wrote Izvestiia, the official paper of the Soviets, whose last issue, the day after the revolution, was still controlled by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. [2]

S.N. Prokopovich, a minister in the Kerensky government, recalled a few years later: ‘In Moscow the Rightists said openly: “Only let the Bolsheviks overthrow the power of the provisional government, and then it will be easy for us to cope with them.” ’ And he added: ‘In the camps of both the right and the left I saw almost open rejoicing during those days over the boldness of the Bolsheviks.’ [3] Another eye-witness, Stankevich, the Commissar of the provisional government at army headquarters, wrote of the mood on the right in the days after the October revolution: ‘The conviction grew with every hour that the Bolsheviks would soon be liquidated.’ [4]

The conservative daily Novoe Vremia wrote on the morning after the Bolsheviks assumed control:

Let us suppose for a moment that the Bolsheviks do gain the upper hand. Who will govern us? The cooks perhaps, those connoisseurs of cutlets and beefsteaks? Or maybe the firemen? The stableboys, the chauffeurs? Or perhaps the nursemaids will rush of to meetings of the Council of State between the diaper-washing sessions? Who then? Where are the statesmen? Perhaps the mechanics will run the theaters, the plumbers foreign affairs, the carpenters, the post office. Who will it be? History alone will give a definitive answer to this mad ambition of the Bolsheviks. [5]

One conservative historian remembered: ‘I never met anyone who doubted that the overthrow of the Bolsheviks was imminent. The only question was how and when.’ [6] Delo Naroda, the daily paper of the Socialist Revolutionaries, wrote three days after the insurrection: ‘The Bolshevik adventure..., like a soap bubble, will burst at the first contact with hard facts.’ [7] And John Reed, who moved in a wide variety of social circles, provides similar testimony: ‘That the Bolsheviki would remain in power longer than three days never occurred to anybody – except perhaps to Lenin, Trotsky, the Petrograd workers and the simple soldiers.’ [8]

The capitalists, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries miscalculated, because, as the reliable witness Sukhanov points out: ‘the Bolsheviks acted with the full backing of the Petersburg workers and soldiers.’ [9] Similarly, Martov wrote to Axelrod on 6 (19) November 1917: ‘Understand, please, that before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat – almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising.’ [10]

The October insurrection was accompanied by very little resistance from the bourgeoisie; first, because the latter could not bring itself to believe that its ‘natural rule’ could be challenged by the proletariat; secondly, because it felt so isolated and estranged from the masses. It required the intervention of the Western imperialist powers to give the Russian bourgeoisie faith in itself and to encourage its resistance to Bolshevism.

The Congress of the Soviets

On 26 October (8 November), the Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets opened at 11.45 p.m. Its social composition was very different from that of the earlier one. The June Congress was made up very largely of petty bourgeois elements. Intellectuals and army officers had been prominent. The October Congress was both younger and much more proletarian. As John Reed describes it:

I stood there watching the new delegates come in – burly, bearded soldiers, workmen in black blouses, a few longhaired peasants. The girl in charge – a member of Plekhanov’s Edinstvo group – smiled contemptuously. ‘These are very different people from the delegates to the first Sezd,’ she remarked. ‘See how rough and ignorant they look! The Dark People ...’ It was true; the depths of Russia had been stirred, and it was the bottom which came uppermost now.’ [11]

The political composition of the second Congress was also very different from that of the first. Whereas the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks had predominated in the June Congress, now the majority of the delegates were followers of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks held some 390 seats out of a total of 650. The strength of the Socialist Revolutionaries was estimated variously as between 160 and 190. But these figures are misleading, since the party had split and most of the SR delegates were supporters of the Left SR Party, which was pro-Bolshevik at the time. The Mensheviks, who in June had accounted for more than 200 delegates, were now reduced to a mere 60-70, and these split into a number of groups. The Right SR and Mensheviks could count on less than 100 votes.

The Congress elected a new Executive. This consisted of 14 Bolsheviks, 7 Socialist Revolutionaries, 3 Mensheviks and 1 United Internationalist (from Maxim Gorky’s group). The Right SR and Mensheviks at once declared that they would refuse to share executive power with the Bolsheviks.

Martov then mounted the rostrum and declared that the most urgent problem was to overcome the current crisis by peaceful means. The Bolsheviks, recognizing the need to expose the real nature of SR and Menshevik policy, did not oppose Martov’s statement, despite the anti-Bolshevik tenor of his speech. ‘The Bolsheviks had absolutely nothing against it; let the question of a peaceable settlement of the crisis be made the first item on the agenda. Martov’s motion was voted on: against it – nobody.’ [12]

However, the Right Mensheviks and Right SR leaders bluntly rejected collaboration with the ‘party of insurrection’. Following their statement the entire Right – Mensheviks, Right SR and Jewish Bund – walked out of the Congress.

Martov continued to argue as if nothing had happened, and went on to preach conciliation. Trotsky then rounded on him:

Now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by the millions of workers and peasants represented in this Congress, whom they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history!

‘Then we’ll leave,’ Martov shouted from the platform amidst stormy applause for Trotsky. [13]

The meeting went on to elect a new Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Congress (VTsIK), i.e. a legislative committee to operate between sessions of the Congress. The Bolsheviks were allowed 67 seats, the Left SR 29; 20 seats were divided among minor groups, including 6 United Internationalists.

The Congress also set up a new government – the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). The Left SRs refused to join it, arguing that this would enable them to mediate between the Bolsheviks on the one side and the Right SRs and Mensheviks on the other, so as to promote a wider coalition.

The composition of the Sovnarkum was as follows:

Chairman of the Council – Vladimir Ulianov (Lenin)
People’s Commissar of the Interior – A.I. Rykov
Agriculture – V.P. Miliutin
Labour – A.G. Shliapnikov
Army and Navy Affairs – a committee consisting of V.A. Ovseenko (Antonov), N.V. Krylenko and P.Y.Dybenko
Commerce and Industry – V.P. Nogin
Education – A.V .Lunacharsky
Finance – I.I. Skvortsov (Stepanov)
Foreign Affairs – L.D. Bronstein (Trotsky)
Justice – G.I. Oppokov (Lomov)
Food – I.A. Teodorovich
Posts and Telegraphy – N.P. Avilov (Glebov)
Chairman of Nationalities Affairs – J.V. Dzhugashvili (Stalin)

The post of People’s Commissar for Railways was deliberately left open in the hope of reaching an agreement with the Central Executive Committee of the Railway Workers’ Union (Vikzhel), which was insistent on the formation of a broad all-socialist government. [A]

Decrees, Decrees, Decrees ...

In the first few days and weeks after coming to power, Lenin dealt with the numerous problems of economic, political and cultural life, by issuing a series of decrees. Eighteen months later, on 23 March 1919, he told the Eighth Congress of the party:

Decrees are instructions which call for practical work on a mass scale. That is what is important. Let us assume that decrees do contain much that is useless, much that in practice cannot be put into effect; but they contain material for practical action, and the purpose of a decree is to teach practical steps to the hundreds, thousands and millions of people who heed the voice of the Soviet government. This is a trial in practical action in the sphere of socialist construction ... If we treat matters in this way we shall acquire a good deal from the sum total of our laws, decrees and ordinances. We shall not regard them as absolute injunctions which must be put into effect instantly and at all costs. [14]

Lenin’s energy knew no bounds.

Untiringly, he presided, five or six hours at a stretch, over the meetings of the Council of People’s Commissars, which at that period took place every day; he directed the debates passing from subject to subject ... As a rule, the topics of discussion were put on the agenda without any previous preparation, and ... always demanding extreme urgency. Very often neither the chairman nor the commissars were familiar with the essentials of a problem until it became the subject of the debate. [15]

Lenin was a strict chairman of Sovnarkom meetings. To this end he drafted the following standing orders:

  1. For those making reports – 10 minutes.
  2. For speakers, the first time 5 minutes, the second time 3 minutes.
  3. To speak not more than twice.
  4. On a point of order, 1 for and 1 against, each for one minute.
  5. Exceptions by special rulings of the Sovnarkom. [16]

At these meetings Lenin had a habit of sending scribbled notes on tiny bits of paper to members of the government asking for information on this or that point. His summary of the discussion was usually the basis for the subsequent decree. Trotsky quite rightly wrote: ‘The collection of Soviet decrees forms in a certain sense a part, and not a negligible part, of the Complete Works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.’ [17]

As there were no precedents, improvisation played a central role in drafting the decrees. Lenin’s creative imagination was indispensable to the legislative work. This huge task was carried out under extremely difficult conditions, the founder of the new state having not even the most ordinary facilities for work. Typewriters were a great rarity in Smolny (the headquarters of the Soviets). There were no shorthand writers. The People’s Commissars had to write out their decrees and proclamations in their own hand.

Everybody was extremely inexperienced. For instance, the newly appointed Director of the State Bank, S.S. Pestovsky, describes in his memoirs how he happened to get the job. A non-Bolshevik and former member of the SR party, he was visiting Smolny. He entered a room.

The room was rather large. In one corner the Secretary of the Sovnarkom, Comrade N.P. Gorbunov, was working at a small table... Farther on, Comrade Menzhinsky, looking very tired, was lounging on a sofa ... over [which] was the sign: ‘The People’s Commissariat of Finance’.

I sat down near Menzhinsky and began to talk with him. In the most innocent way he started to question me about my earlier career and became curious in regard to my past studies.

I answered ... that I had worked at the University of London, where, among other subjects, I had studied finance.

Menzhinsky suddenly arose, fixed his eyes upon me, and categorically declared: In that case we shall make you the director of the State Bank.

I was frightened and answered ... that I had no desire to hold this position, since it was entirely ‘outside my line’. Saying nothing, Menzhinsky asked me to wait, and left the room.

He was gone for some time, and then returned with a paper signed by Ilyich [Lenin] on which it was stated that I was the director of the State Bank.

I became even more dumbfounded, and began to beg Menzhinsky to revoke the appointment, but he remained inflexible on this point.’ [18]

And what were the qualifications of Menzhinsky himself to be People’s Commissar of Finance? It seems ‘he had once been a clerk in a French bank.’ [19]

The qualifications of the Secretary of the Council of People’s Commissars were also questionable. N.P. Gorbunov, a young man of 25, describes how one day he was called by V.D. Bonch-Bruevich, Lenin’s secretary.

I went to him and, without any explanation, he dragged me upstairs to the third floor into the small corner room where Vladimir Ilyich worked in those first days ... I saw Vladimir Ilyich who greeted me and to my astonishment, said, ‘You will be the secretary of the Sovnarkom’. I received no instructions from him at that time. I knew absolutely nothing about my job or about secretarial duties in general. Somewhere I commandeered a typewriter on which, for quite a long time, I had to bang out documents with two fingers; no typist could be found.

The office furniture consisted of one desk. Lenin called him into the first cabinet meeting to take the minutes even though he knew no shorthand and his spelling was imperfect. [20]

One result of the rush to issue decrees and proclamations was that formalities were abandoned. As Iu. Larin, a member of VTsIK and chief of the Bureau of Legislation of Sovnarkom, remembers:

Of the first fifteen decrees which are found in No. 1 of the Collection of Laws (Sobranie Uzakonenii i Rasporiazhenii Rabochego i Kristianskogo Pravitelstva) only two were actually considered by the Sovnarkom ... I remember Lenin’s astonishment when he first saw ... the decree No. 12, under his signature, which conferred legislative powers on the Sovnarkom (the Congress of Soviets granted only executive powers). [21]

The Decree on Peace

The first decree drafted by Lenin, which was issued the day after the insurrection by the newly formed government, was the decree on peace. The new workers’ and peasants’ government

calls upon all the belligerent peoples and their governments to start immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace.

... by such a peace the government means an immediate peace without annexations (i.e. without the seizure of foreign lands, without the forcible incorporation of foreign nations) and without indemnities ...

The government considers it the greatest of crimes against humanity to continue this war over the issue of how to divide among the strong and rich nations the weak nationalities they have conquered, and solemnly announces its determination immediately to sign terms of peace to stop this war on the terms indicated, which are equally just for all nationalities without exception ...

The government abolishes secret diplomacy, and, for its part, announces its firm intention to conduct all negotiations quite openly in full view of the whole people. It will proceed immediately with the full publication of the secret treaties endorsed or concluded by the government of landowners and capitalists from February to 25 October 1917. The government proclaims the unconditional and immediate annulment of everything contained in those secret treaties insofar as it is aimed, as is mostly the case, at securing advantages and privileges for the Russian landowners and capitalists and at the retention, or extension, of the annexations made by the Great Russians. [22]

The Decree on Land

Another decree of world historical importance, that on land, was issued on the same day as the decree on peace. This was also drafted by Lenin.

Private ownership of land shall be abolished for ever; land shall not be sold, purchased, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated.

All land, whether state, crown, monastery, church, factory, entailed, private, public, peasant, etc., shall be confiscated without compensation and become the property of the whole people, and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it ...

Lands on which high-level scientific farming is practised – orchards, plantations, seed plots, nurseries, hothouses, etc. – shall not be divided up, but shall be converted into model farms, to be turned over for exclusive use to the state or to the communes, depending on the size and importance of such lands ... The right to use the land shall be accorded to all citizens of the Russian state (without distinction of sex) desiring to cultivate it by their own labour, with the help of their families, or in partnership, but only as long as they are able to cultivate it. The employment of hired labour is not permitted ...

Land tenure shall be on an equality basis, i.e. the land shall be distributed among the working people in conformity with a labour standard or a subsistence standard, depending on local conditions. [23]

Lenin’s tactical adaptability shows itself at its best in the Decree on Land Reform. Unashamedly he adopted the SR programme:

The Socialist Revolutionaries fumed and raved [Lenin wrote], protested and howled that ‘the Bolsheviks had stolen their programme’, but they were only laughed at for that; a fine party, indeed, which had to be defeated and driven from the government in order that everything in its programme that was revolutionary and of benefit to the working people could be carried out! [24]

The Right of the Peoples of Russia to Self-Determination

Another long-standing element in the programme of Bolshevism was the right of oppressed nations to freedom. On 2 (15) November, Sovnarkom issued a decree, to this effect, including the following principles:

  1. Equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia.
  2. The right of the peoples of Russia to free self-determination, up to secession and formation of an independent state.
  3. Abolition of all and any national and national-religious privileges and restrictions.
  4. Free development of national minorities and ethnic groups inhabiting Russia. [25]

The Decree on Workers’ Control

A decree on workers’ control was drafted by Lenin and issued by Sovnarkom on 14 (27) November:

In order to provide planned regulation of the national economy, workers’ control over the manufacture, purchase, sale and storage of produce and raw materials and over the financial activity of enterprises is introduced in all industrial, commercial, banking, agricultural, cooperative and other enterprises which employ hired labour or give work to be done at home. Workers’ control is exercised by all the workers of the given enterprise through their elected bodies, such as factory committees, shop stewards’ councils, etc., whose members include representatives of the office employees and the technical personnel.

In every city, guberniia and industrial district a local workers’ control council is set up which, being an agency of the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ deputies, is composed of representatives of trade unions, factory and office workers committees, and workers’ cooperatives ...

Decisions of workers’ control bodies are binding upon the owners of enterprises and may be revoked only by higher workers’ control bodies ...

The All-Russia Workers’ Control Council works out general plans of workers’ control, issues instructions and ordinances, regulates relationships between district workers’ control councils, and serves as the highest instance for all matters pertaining to workers’ contro1. [26]

Many, Many Other Decrees

On 21 November (4 December) a decree on the right of recall, also drafted by Lenin, was issued by Sovnarkom:

No elective institution or representative assembly can be regarded as being truly democratic and really representative of the people’s will unless the electors’ right to recall those elected is accepted and exercised. This fundamental principle of true democracy applies to all representative assemblies without exception. [27]

On 22 November (5 December) Sovnarkom issued a decree on the judiciary. The old judges were removed from office and replaced by new ones who were to be elected either by the Soviets or by popular vote. Former laws were to be valid ‘only inasmuch as they are not abolished by the revolution and do not contradict revolutionary consciousness and a revolutionary sense of right’. This statement was supplemented by a provision to the effect that all laws that conflicted with decrees of the Soviet government and with the minimum programme of the Bolshevik and Socialist Revolutionary Party should be considered invalid.

Two decrees dated 16 (29) and 18 (31) December swept aside the marriage and divorce laws. According to these decrees only civil marriage was to be recognized by the state; children born out of wedlock were to be given the same rights as the offspring of marriage; divorce was to be had for the asking by either spouse. The new laws emphasized the full equality of men and women. [28]

The complete separation of church from state and school from church was decreed by a law promulgated on 2 February 1918. Under this law every Soviet citizen was free to profess any or no religion; no religious ceremonies were to be performed in connection with any state function; religious teaching was forbidden in schools; churches and religious societies were denied the right to own property. [29]

Alongside decrees on subjects of major importance, one finds Lenin dealing with a vast quantity of regulations affecting details of local administration, such as the uniting of some suburbs with the town of Bogorodsk, the assignment of 450,000 rubles (a negligible sum at the time) for the needs of the population of Kremenchug County in Ukraine which had suffered a flood, and the appointment and dismissal of individual officials. [30]

He involved himself with the most trivial affairs. Thus in March 1918 he asks why the clerks in the Moscow post office are required to work such long hours. [31] Then comes a string of complaints at the arbitrary requisitioning of property. In July 1918, as the war clouds gather in the east, he writes to one Ivanov, in a village between Kazan and the Urals: ‘It is alleged that you have requisitioned some writing materials, including a table, belonging to the stationmaster. Return these objects at once. Telegraph your explanations.’

History, unfortunately, does not record the fate of the stationmaster’s table, nor that of the bicycle belonging to the pharmacist at Zhlobin, which calls for two letters from the solicitous Lenin. [32] At the time Lenin had at his disposal only the most rudimentary secretarial organization, and his communications system was likewise primitive; he was forever complaining about his malfunctioning telephone.

The Soviet Government Fighting for Survival

The stream of legislation was a product of the immediate struggle of the new regime for survival. There is no doubt that the decrees on peace and land won the new government mass popularity. However, the pen of the legislator had to be accompanied by the sword of the soldier, and for days, weeks, months, even years, the fate of the new regime hung in the balance.

During the week following the seizure of power the Bolsheviks had to face an uprising of the cadets at the military school in Petrograd, and to defend the capital against the movement of troops which Kerensky was trying to organize, which got under way while the Second Congress of Soviets was still in session.

On 26 October (8 November) General P.N.Krasnov, Commander of the Third Cavalry Corps, which had participated in Kornilov’s luckless adventure, started to march on Petrograd on Kerensky’s orders. Next day his forces occupied Gatchina, 27 miles from Petrograd. The day after, early in the morning, Krasnov advanced on Tsarskoe Selo, 15 miles from the capital.

On 30 October (12 November) Krasnov’s Cossacks met strong resistance from a Bolshevik-led unit of sailors on the Pulkovo Heights, just outside the city limits. The Bolsheviks achieved the first military victory in the civil war, and Krasnov was forced to retreat to Gatchina.

On 2 (15) November Bolshevik troops stormed Gatchina. Krasnov was arrested and brought to Smolny under guard. The revolution was still a mild one at this stage. Krasnov was soon released, after giving his word not to take arms against the government again. (He broke his promise, and made his way to the Don where the following spring he became leader of the Cossack White Army movement.)

But even with military victory assured in Petrograd, Bolshevik rule was still limited to a tiny area of Russia – taking power in Moscow was much more difficult. After the Bolshevik victory in Petrograd on 25 October, it took another eight long days to achieve power in Moscow, by means of a very bloody battle. Before October, for various reasons, Moscow was more difficult to win over to Bolshevism than Petrograd. It was more isolated from the front, it did not have Petrograd’s rebellious soldiers and sailors, it suffered much less from food shortages. The Moscow proletariat was dispersed among smaller factories compared with the huge plants in Petrograd. [33] In the years when Bolshevism became a mass workers’ party (1912–1914) Moscow lagged far behind Petrograd. As late as October 1917, the Socialist Revolutionaries had a large following among the workers of Moscow, while their influence among the workers of Petrograd was practically non-existent.

The most brilliant Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky, were in Petrograd. The Moscow leadership was split (as indeed was that of Petrograd). Bukharin took the same line as Lenin and Trotsky, while Nogin and Rykov hesitated and vacillated. It was only on 25 October (7 November) that a Military Revolutionary Committee was established in Moscow, and this consisted at first of 4 Bolsheviks, 2 Mensheviks and 1 United Internationalist. The Mensheviks openly declared that they were joining the Military Revolutionary Committee in order to obstruct its work. (They soon withdrew from it.) Only on 26 October (8 November) did a conference of representatives of the garrison convene. Hesitations and delays cost the Moscow proletariat dear. While only five people died in Petrograd during the insurrection, many hundreds of soldiers and workers lost their lives in the struggle in the ancient capital of Moscow.

Moscow was the only place in central and northern Russia where the Bolshevik seizure of power met persistent and violent resistance. Elsewhere the course of the transfer of power to the Soviets varied from place to place depending on such factors as the proportion of industrial workers in the population, the mood of the local garrison and the strength of the local Bolshevik Party organization.

In the central industrial region and the Urals the Bolsheviks took control quickly and easily straight after the October insurrection in Petrograd. Thus in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, ‘the Russian Manchester’, the Bolsheviks achieved their objectives ‘in the most painless manner ... without firing a single shot or shedding a single drop of blood’. The news of the Petrograd coup was announced to an enthusiastic meeting of the town’s municipal council and the revolutionary council was established. [34]

At Cheliabinsk and Ekaterinburg and other cities the Bolsheviks took over almost without meeting any resistance. [35] In such middle and lower Volga towns as Nizhni Novgorod, Samara and Saratov, as well as those on the Trans-Siberian railway (Krasnoiarsk, Irkutsk), ‘the October days ... took the form of a brief confrontation’. [36 ]In the north west, in White Russia, the troops were solidly Bolshevik and the transfer of power was very smooth indeed.

In non-industrial provincial centres, such as Penza and Simbirsk, the setting up of an unambiguously Bolshevik regime took place slowly and was only completed in December.

In the industrialized eastern and south eastern regions of the Ukraine, where the Russian population was quite large and Ukrainian nationalism had few roots, the Bolsheviks seized power quite easily. On 31 November (7 December), the Soviet of Kharkov, the largest city in eastern Ukraine, passed a resolution demanding an All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets to be the repository of power. In the western part of the Ukraine, whose capital was Kiev, and where the industrial working class and Bolshevik organization were relatively weak and nationalism strong, power remained in the hands of the petty bourgeoisie of the Rada.

When at the Third Congress of Soviets (8 (21)–18 (31) January 1918) the Bolsheviks proclaimed the establishment of the Russian Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR) they were actually in control of only a fragment, albeit a substantial fragment, of the former empire. They held the two capitals, the central and northern part of European Russia, and, more precariously, a few towns in Siberia and central Asia.

In the west the armies of the Central Powers occupied a vast area stretching from the Dniester to beyond the Gulf of Riga. Further north, in Finland, a bourgeois government was waging a bloody civil war against the revolt of the Social Democrats, who were aided by the Bolsheviks. In the south a newly formed nationalist bourgeois government of the Caucasus and the Trans-Volga regions was fighting the extension of Bolshevik power with varying degrees of success. In the south east the first White Guards, under the command of Kornilov, Kaledin, Alekseev and Denikin, moved into action on the Don; and the Cossacks of Orenburg rose under Ataman Dutov.

Fighting Sabotage

While the Bolsheviks had to deal with the external threat of General Krasnov’s march on Petrograd, those inside the capital had to deal with another enemy no less dangerous – the saboteurs within. On 27 October (9 November) a general strike of all state employees was called in Petrograd, and almost all the officials and clerks of public institutions came out.

The employees of the Ministries of Agriculture, Labour, Posts and Telegraphs, Food, Finance and Foreign Affairs went on strike. So did the teachers. By 15 (28) December, more than 30,000 Petrograd teachers were on strike. They were joined by the workers in the public libraries and the People’s Houses and by 50,000 bank clerks. These strikes confronted the new rulers with grave difficulties.

The telegraphists and telephonists also stopped work. Telegraphy was the only quick means of communication across the huge distances of Russia. These workers were very much under the influence of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. Most of the telegraphists refused to work for the Bolshevik intruders, so it was left to a group of sailors from Kronstadt to struggle with the apparatus in an attempt to inform the country about Lenin’s first decrees on peace and land. They soon found that they could not cope with the tasks: some of the machinery and the supply of current had been sabotaged.

The Bolsheviks put up a large placard outside the telegraph office, explaining what had happened and asking for assistance. Eventually, after angry Bolshevik sympathizers from the factories had arrived and intimated the telegraphists, some of them returned to their posts. [37]

Similar difficulties were encountered at the telephone offices. According to John Reed, ‘Smolny was cut off, and the Duma and the Committee for Salvation were in constant communication with all the junker schools and with Kerensky at Tsarskee.’ [38] The Bolsheviks found it was very difficult to operate the telephone system.

Only half a dozen trained operators were available. Volunteers were called for; a hundred responded, sailors, soldiers, workers. The six girls scurried backwards and forwards, instructing, helping, scolding ... So, crippled, halting, but going, the wires began to hum. The first thing was to connect Smolny with the barracks and the factories; the second, to cut off the Duma and the junker schools. [39]

Another group of workers who threatened to sabotage Bolshevik rule was the one million railwaymen. The social composition of the railway employees was complex and hierarchical. At the top of the hierarchy were the civil service employees in the administrative headquarters of the railway networks, and the owners and managers of the private companies. Next came the engineers, planners, statisticians and the less important office workers. These two groups represented between 16 and 17 per cent of all those employed on the railways. [40]

The group which ran the railway union was the Vikzhel. Its composition was: 12 senior administrative staff, 10 engineers and technicians, 3 lawyers, 2 doctors, 3 office workers, 2 engine crew and 8 clerical staff and workers.

Thus Vikzhel’s support came chiefly from the middle and higher ranks of the railway employees, who were influenced by the two main moderate socialist parties, the SRs and the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks were an insignficant minority. The members included 2 Bolsheviks, 14 Socialist Revolutionaries, 7 Mensheviks, 3 Socialist-Populists and 11 non-party representatives, many of whom supported the Cadets. [41] [B]

The railwaymen, who had played a central role in crushing the Kornilov coup, now, after the October insurrection, presented the Bolsheviks with an ultimatum: unless they entered a coalition with the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks the Vikzhel would launch a general strike, whose consequences could have been very grave indeed (as we shall see later).

It was only after 78 days (on 13 (26) January 1918) that the strike of public employees in Petrograd came to end. In Moscow the strike of the 16,000 municipal employees was to last four months.

The Beginning of Red Terror

The military cadets whom the Bolsheviks had released on parole from the Winter Palace on 26 October (8 November) betrayed their trust two days later and staged an uprising. Similarly mild treatment was shown to General Krasnov, which he also repaid with treason.

Lenin wrote on 5 (18) November:

We are accused of resorting to terrorism, but we have not resorted, and I hope will not resort, to the terrorism of the French revolutionaries who guillotined unarmed men. I hope we shall not resort to it, because we have strength on our side. When we arrested anyone we told him we would let him go if he gave us a written promise not to engage in sabotage. Such written promises have been given. [43]

Victor Serge, in his Year One of the Russian Revolution wrote of the events in Moscow:

The Whites surrendered at 4 p.m. on 2 [15] November. ‘The Committee of Public Safety is dissolved. The White Guard surrenders its arms and is disbanded. The officers may keep the sidearms that distinguish their rank. Only such weapons as are necessary for practice may be kept in the military academies ... The MRC [Military Revolutionary Committee] guarantees the liberty and inviolability of all.’ Such were the principal clauses of the armistice signed between Reds and Whites. The fighters of the counter-revolution, butchers of the Kremlin, who in victory would have shown no quarter whatever to the Reds – we have seen proof – went free.

And Serge comments:

Foolish clemency! These very Junkers, these officers, these students, these socialists of counter-revolution, dispersed themselves throughout the length and breadth of Russia, and there organized the civil war. The revolution was to meet them again, at Iaroslavl, on the Don, at Kazan, in the Crimea, in Siberia and in every conspiracy nearer home. [44]

These were the early days of revolutionary innocence. But Lenin was not a pacifist. The morning after the October insurrection, on Kamenev’s initiative and in Lenin’s absence, the death penalty was abolished. When he learned about this first piece of legislation, Lenin was very angry. ‘How can one make a revolution without firing squads? Do you think you will be able to deal with all your enemies by laying down your arms? What other means of repression do you have? Imprisonment? No one attaches any importance to this during a civil war when each side hopes to win.’

‘It is a mistake,’ he went on, ‘an inadmissible weakness, a pacifist illusion’, and much more. ‘Do you really think that we shall come out victorious without any revolutionary terror?’ [45]

At the Fifth Congress of Soviets (July 1918) he repeated the point: ‘a revolutionary who does not want to be a hypocrite cannot renounce capital punishment. There has never been a revolution or a period of civil war without shootings.’ [46]

To organize the struggle against counter-revolution, on 7 (20) December 1917 Sovnarkom established the Cheka, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to fight Counter-revolution and Sabotage. At first its staff was small, its resources very limited, and the few death sentences it passed were on common criminals. M.I. Latsis, member of the Cheka in 1918, states that during the first six months of its existence, the Cheka had 22 people shot. [47]

The revolutionary terror in Russia, like its predecessor in France during its great revolution, was a reaction to foreign invasion and the immensity of the threat to the revolution. The Paris terror of 2 September 1793 followed the Duke of Brunswick’s proclamation threatening foreign invasion and ruthless repression of the revolution.

It was foreign invasion, starting with the victories of the Czechoslovak troops over the Red Army in June 1918, that threatened the greatest danger to the Soviet republic. On 20 June the popular Bolshevik orator, Volodarsky, was assassinated by counter-revolutionaries. On 30 August an attempt was made on Lenin’s life. He was badly wounded and for a few days was in a critical condition. Another Bolshevik leader, Uritsky, the President of the Petrograd Cheka, was murdered. The Red terror was unleashed in retaliation. On 2 September 500 hostages were shot in Petrograd. Whereas between September 1917 and June 1918 the Cheka had executed 22 people in the second half of 1918 more than 6,000 executions took place. [48] September 1918, writes E. H. Carr, ‘marked the turning-point after which the terror, hitherto sporadic and unorganized, became a deliberate instrument of policy.’ [49]

Compared with the White terror, however, the Red terror was mild. Thus in Finland alone, in April 1918 between 10 and 20,000 workers were slaughtered by the counter-revolutionaries. [50] With complete justification Lenin told the Seventh Congress of Soviets on 5 December 1919:

The terror was forced on us by the terror of the Entente, the terror of mighty world capitalism which has been throttling the workers and peasants, and is condemning them to death by starvation because they are fighting for their country’s freedom. [51]

One should not exaggerate the effectiveness of the Cheka and the Red terror during the civil war. The following incident illustrates this. On 19 January 1919, Lenin was in a car with his sister Maria, driven by his chauffeur, S.K. Gil, who tells the story. The car was moving slowly through the snow, when they heard a shout, ‘Stop’. Gil accelerated. A few blocks further on, several men were standing in the middle of the road with revolvers in their hands, and shouted, ‘Halt!’ Gil, seeing this was not a patrol, drove straight at them. ‘Stop, or we shoot,’ one of the men yelled. Gil wanted to speed past, but Lenin told him to stop.

‘Halt! Stop the car!’ the men ordered.

Lenin opened the door and said, ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘Get out, shut up,’ came the reply.

He grabbed Lenin by his sleeve and pulled him out. Lenin showed his pass, with photograph and name and said, ‘What’s the matter comrades? Who are you?’

One of the armed searched Lenin’s pocket and took his wallet and a small Browning. Maria exclaimed, ‘What right have you to search him? Why, he is Comrade Lenin. Show your papers!’

‘We don’t need papers,’ somebody replied, ‘We can do anything.’

Gil, who had remained at the wheel, with his revolver cocked, did not dare use it.

The hold-up group now asked Gil to leave the car. When he obeyed, they all got in and drove off.

Nearby stood the building of the Sokolniky Soviet. They walked over to phone the Kremlin for a car. But the watchman would not let them in. He asked Lenin for his pass.

‘I am Lenin,’ Lenin said, ‘but I cannot prove it. I have just been robbed of my pass.’

The watchman looked sceptical. Gil showed his identification, which served for all of them. Inside they found nobody. In a small room they awakened a sleeping telephone operator, who rang the Kremlin. A car came. [52]

Relying on the Initiative of the Masses

The enormous legislative activity associated with the urgent task of self-defence against counter-revolution, and the creation of effective armed forces and an organ of revolutionary terror in the midst of total chaos, were possible only because Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders knew that their actions merged completely with those of the masses in shaping a new historical epoch.

‘Miracles of proletarian organization must be achieved.’ This idea of Lenin’s was central to the actions of the Government, the party and the proletariat. The initiative of the masses was the most important factor. Lenin wrote:

One of the most important tasks today, if not the most important, is to develop this independent initiative of the workers, and of all the working and exploited people generally, develop it as widely as possibly in creative organizational work... There is a great deal of talent among the people. It is merely suppressed. It must be given an opportunity to display itself. It and it alone, with the support of the people, can save Russia and save the cause of socialism. [53]

‘We must be guided by experience; we must allow complete freedom to the creative faculties of the masses’, Lenin declared to the Second Congress of the Soviets the day after the October revolution. [54] ‘Creative activity at the grass roots is the basic factor of the new public life... living, creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.’ [55] One should not worry at all about mistakes. The mistakes of the masses were in themselves creative. ‘Let there be mistakes – they would be the mistakes of a new class creating a new way of life ... There was not and could not be a definite plan for the organization of economic life. Nobody could provide one. But it could be done from below, by the masses, through their experience.’ [56] The building of a new society, Lenin declared at the Third Congress of Soviets on 11 (24) January 1918,

will entail many difficulties, sacrifices and mistakes; it is something new, unprecedented in history and cannot be studied from books. It goes without saying that this is the greatest and most difficult transition that has ever occurred in history. [57]

... socialism ... for the first time creates the opportunity for employing it on a really wide and on a really mass scale, for actually drawing the majority of working people into a field of labour in which they can display their abilities, develop the capacities, and reveal those talents, so abundant among the people whom capitalism crushed, suppressed and strangled in thousands and millions. [58]

Above all Lenin made it clear that the strength of a workers’ state is rooted in the strength of the proletariat. ‘Our idea is that a state is strong when the people are politically conscious. It is strong when the people know everything, can form an opinion of everything and do everything consciously,’ Lenin said to the Second Congress of Soviets, summing up the debate on the Decree on Peace.

The Close Relationship of the Leaders and the Mass of Workers

The closeness of the relationship between the masses and the leadership is well conveyed in a scene described by John Reed. Trotsky was reporting to the Petrograd Soviet on the progress of the fighting:

‘The cruisers, Oleg, Avrora and Respublika are anchored in the Neva, their guns trained on the approaches to the city ...’

‘Why aren’t you out there with the Red Guards?’ shouted a rough voice.

‘I’m going now!’ answered Trotsky, and left the platform. [59]

Another scene illustrates how the leaders had to accommodate the feelings of the masses: V.A. Antonov-Ovsenko, Joint People’s Commissar of War and Navy, needed a car to go and inspect the revolutionary front on 28 October (10 November) 1917.

Antonov stood in the middle of the street and signalled a passing machine, driven by a soldier.

‘I want that machine,’ said Antonov.

‘You won’t get it,’ responded the soldier.

‘Do you know who I am?’ Antonov produced a paper upon which was written that he had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of all the armies of the Russian Republic, and that everyone should obey him without question.

‘I don’t care if you’re the devil himself,’ said the soldier, hotly.

‘This machine belongs to the First Machine-Gun Regiment, and we’re carrying ammunition in it, and you can’t have it.’ [60]


A. See further, Chapter 2 below.

B. The main group of railwaymen supporting the Bolsheviks were those working in railway workshops and depots – who made up 35 per cent of all railwaymen – but they had opted out of the All-Russian Union by joining the more radical trade unions of the metal workers and joiners. [42]


1. L. Trotsky, My Life, New York, 1960, p. 37.

2. R.P. Browder and A.F. Kerensky, The Russian Provisional Government 1917 – Documents, Stanford 1961, Vol. 3, p. 1801.

3. P.N. Miliukov, Istoriia vtoroi russkoi revoliutsii, Sofia 1923, Part 3, p. 296.

4. V.B. Stankevich, Vospominaniia, 1914–1919 g., Berlin 1920, p. 267.

5. A. Kopp, Town and Revoulution, London 1967, pp. 1–2.

6. I.V. Gessen, In Two Revolutions: Life Experience, Arkhiv russkoi revoliutsii,Vol. 22, Berlin 1937, p. 382.

7. J. Bunyan and H.H. Fisher, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–1918: Documents and Materials, Stanford 1934, p. 148.

8. J. Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, London 1961, p. 97.

9. N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917, A Personal Record, London 1955, p. 648.

10. I. Getzler, Martov, Cambridge (Mass.) 1967, p. 172.

11. Reed, op. cit., p. 28.

12. Sukhanov, op.cit, p. 636.

13. ibid., pp. 639–40.

14. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, translated from the fourth Russian edition (henceforth referred to as Works), Vol. 29, p. 209.

15. L. Trotsky, On Lenin, London, 1971, p. 122.

16. Lenin, Works, Vol. 44, p. 206.

17. Trotsky, On Lenin, op.cit. p. 127.

18. S.S. Pestovsky, On October Days in Peter, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, No. 10, 1922; Bunyan and Fisher, op.cit., pp. 186–7.

19. Reed, op. cit., p. 102.

20. Vospominaniia o Vladimire Ilyiche Lenine, Moscow 1963, Vol. 3, pp. 160–6.

21. Bunyan and Fisher, op. cit., p. 186.

22. Lenin, Works, Vol. 26, pp. 249–50.

23. ibid., pp. 258–60.

24. ibid., Vol. 30, p. 265.

25. Y. Akhapkin, First Decrees of Soviet Power, London 1970, p. 32.

26. ibid., pp. 36–8.

27. ibid., pp. 42–3.

28. ibid., pp. 63–5, 69–71.

29. ibid. pp. 88–9.

30. W.H. Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, New York 1965, Vol. 1, p. 355.

31. Lenin, Works, Vo1. 44, pp. 71–2.

32. J.L.H. Keep, Lenin’s Letters as an Historical Source, in B.W. Eissenstat (ed.), Lenin and Leninism, Lexington (Mass.) 1971, p. 258.

33. G.S. Ignatiev, Oktiabr 1917 goda v Moskve, Moscow 1964, p. 4.

34. J. Keep, October in the Provinces, in R. Pipes (ed.) Revolutionary Russia, Cambridge (Mass.) 1967, p. 194.

35. ibid., pp. 195–6.

36. ibid., p. 197.

37. R.W. Pethybridge, The Spread of the Russian Revolution: Essays on 1917, London 1971, p. 77.

38. Reed, op. cit., pp. 161–2.

39. ibid., p. 164.

40. Pethybridge, op. cit., p. 17.

41. ibid., p. 22.

42. ibid., p. 23.

43. Lenin, Works, Vol. 26, p. 294.

44. V. Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, London 1972, p. 79.

45. Trotsky, On Lenin, op. cit., pp. 151, 118.

46. Lenin, Works, Vol. 27, p. 519.

47. M. Latsis, Chrezvychainaia komissiia po borbe s kontrrevoliutsiei, Moscow 1920.

48. Serge, op. cit., p. 307.

49. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–1923, Vol. 1, London 1950, p. 168.

50. Serge, op. cit., p. 189.

51. Lenin, Works, Vol. 30, p. 223.

52. Vospominaniia o Vladimire Ilyiche Lenine, op. cit., Vol. 2, pp. 435–8.

53. Lenin, Works, Vol. 26, pp. 409, 415.

54. ibid., p. 261.

55. ibid., p. 288.

56. ibid., p. 365.

57. ibid., p. 459.

58. ibid., p. 404.

59. Reed, op. cit., p. 179.

60. ibid., p. 150.

Last updated on 19.9.2012