Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

The Insurrection of 25 October 1917


From the rostrum Trotsky had just announced the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from the Pre-Parliament (Democratic Conference). His voice, grating metallically, hurled the defiance of proletariat and peasantry before the highest authority of the Republic. Then he went out, passing in front of the sailors who were guarding the hall. As he passed them their bayonets wavered, and hard faces with burning eyes turned to the man who had just spoken. Gesturing with their bayonets, they asked him:

‘When do we use these?’

It was 6 October. The Democratic Conference, a mock parliament for the revolution summoned by the S-Rs and Mensheviks, had opened in Moscow in the middle of the previous month. Strikes had forced it out of the city; the staff in hotels and restaurants had refused to wait upon its members. It had now been transferred to Petrograd, and was deliberating under the protection of a picked unit of the most reliable sailors. But the bayonets of these men shuddered at the passage of a Bolshevik spokesman:

‘When do we use these?’ [1]

This state of feeling was general in the fleet. Two weeks before 25 October, the sailors of the Baltic squadron, anchored at Helsinki, demanded that no more time be lost, and that the destruction of the fleet by the Germans, which now appears to us to be inevitable, should be made holy by insurrection. [2] They were willing to die: but only for the revolution. Since 15 May the Kronstadt Soviet had refused to recognize the Provisional Government. After the July riots, the commissars sent by Kerensky to board ships and arrest ‘Bolshevik agitators’ received only this curt response: ‘Agitators? We are all agitators.’ It was true. The masses had innumerable agitators.

Delegates from the trenches came to the Petrograd Soviet with speeches of denunciation:

How much longer is this unbearable situation going to last? The soldiers have mandated us to tell you that if peace proposals are not presented immediately and seriously, the trenches will empty and the whole army will come home. You are forgetting all about us! If you cannot find the answer to the situation we shall chase out our enemies ourselves, at bayonet-point – but you will go with them!

Such, Trotsky relates, was the language of the front. [3]

At the beginning of October the insurrection broke out everywhere, spontaneously; peasant risings spread all over the country.

The provinces of Tula, Tambov, Ryazan and Kaluga are in revolt.

The peasants have been expecting peace and land from the revolution. They have been disappointed; and so they rise, seize the granaries of the landlords, and burn down their houses. The Kerensky government re-presses the risings wherever it has the force to do so. Fortunately its resources are limited. Lenin warns that ‘to crush the peasant upsurge means the murder of the revolution’. [4]

Within the Soviets of the cities and the armies, the Bolsheviks, until recently a minority, become the majority. In the Moscow Municipal Duma elections, they win 199,337 votes out of 387,262. Of the 710 members elected, 350 were Bolsheviks, 184 Kadets, 104 Socialist-Revolutionaries, thirty-one Mensheviks and forty-one other groups. On the eve of civil war, the moderate, middle-ground parties now fall back, and the extreme parties gain. At a time when the Mensheviks are losing all real influence, and the governing S-R party, which only a short while before appeared to carry immense weight, is reduced to the third place, the Kadets – the bourgeoisie’s own party – acquire new strength as they line up to face the revolutionaries. At the last elections in June the S-Rs and the Mensheviks had obtained seventy per cent of the vote: their share now is eighteen per cent. Of the 17,000 soldiers who vote, 14,000 are for the Bolsheviks.

The Soviets are becoming transformed. Once the strongholds of the Mensheviks and the S-Rs, they are becoming Bolshevized. There are new majorities forming in them. On 31 August in Petrograd and on 6 September in Moscow, the Bolshevik resolutions put before the Soviet obtain a majority for the first time. On 8 September, the Menshevik-S-R executives of the two Soviets resign. On 25 September, Trotsky is elected President of the Petrograd Soviet. Nogin [5] is elected to the same position in Moscow. On 20 September, the Soviet in Tashkent takes power. It is suppressed by the troops of the Provisional Government.[6] On 27 September, the Soviet in Reval decides in principle for ‘all power to the Soviets’. A few days before the October Revolution, Kerensky’s democratic’ artillery fires upon the revolutionary Soviet at Kaluga.

A little-known fact is worth recording here. At Kazan, the October insurrection triumphed before it had even begun in Petrograd. One of those who took part relates this dialogue between two militants at Kazan:

‘What would you have done if the Soviets had not taken power in Petrograd?’

‘It was impossible for us to refuse power, the garrison wouldn’t let us.’

‘Moscow would have rubbed you out.’

‘No, you are wrong. Moscow could never have got past the forty thousand soldiers we had at Kazan.’ [7]

All over this immense country, the whole labouring masses are moving towards revolution: peasants, workers, soldiers. It is an elemental, irresistible surge, with the force of an ocean.


The masses have a million faces: far from being homogeneous, they are dominated by various and contradictory class interests; the sole means by which they can attain a clear-sighted consciousness – without which no successful action is possible – lies in organization. The rebel masses of Russia in 1917 rose to a clear consciousness of their necessary tasks, of their means and the objectives, through the organ of the Bolshevik party. This is not a theory, it is a statement of the facts. In this situation we can see, in superb relief, the relations that obtain between the party, the working class and the toiling masses in general. It is what they actually want, however confusedly, the sailors at Kronstadt, the soldiers in Kazan, the workers of Petrograd, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Moscow and everywhere, the peasants ransacking the landlords’ mansions; it is what they all want without having the power to express their hopes firmly, to match them against the economic and the political realities, to formulate the most practical aims and choose the best means of attaining them, to select the most favourable moment for action, to extend the action from one end of the country to the other, to provide the exchanges of information and the necessary discipline, to co-ordinate the innumerable separate efforts that are going on – it is what they really want, without being able to constitute themselves into (in a word) a force of the requisite intelligence, training, will and myriad energy. What they want, then, the party expresses at a conscious level, and then carries out. The party reveals to them what they have been thinking. It is the bond which unites them from one end of the country to the other. The party is their consciousness, their organization.

When the gunners of the Baltic fleet grew anxious for the perils hanging over the revolution, and sought a way forward, it was the Bolshevik agitator who pointed a way. And there was no other way, that much was clear. When the soldiers in the trenches wanted to voice their determination to finish with the butchery, they elected, to the committee of their battalion, the candidates of the Bolshevik party. When the peasants became tired of the procrastinations of ‘their’ Socialist-Revolutionary party, and began to ask whether it was not time to act for themselves, it was Lenin’s voice that reached them: ‘Peasant, seize the land!’ When the workers sensed counter-revolutionary intrigue all about them, it was Pravda that brought them the slogans of action that they already half-knew, the words of revolutionary necessity. In front of the Bolshevik poster the wretched folk passing by in the street stop and exclaim, ‘That’s just it!’ That is just it. This voice is their own.

That is why the progress of the masses towards revolution is reflected in one great political fact: the Bolsheviks, a small revolutionary minority in March, become in September and October the party of the majority. Any distinction between the party and the masses becomes impossible, it is all one multitude. Doubtless, scattered among the crowds, there were many other revolutionaries: Left S-Rs (the most numerous), anarchists and Maximalists [8], who also aim towards the revolution. These are a handful of men swept along by events, leaders who are being led. How clouded their perception of realities is, we shall see by many instances. It is the Bolsheviks who, owing to their accurate theoretical appraisal of the dynamism of events, become identified both with the labouring masses and with the necessity of history. ‘The Communists have no other interests distinct from those of the working class as a whole’: thus the Manifesto of Marx and Engels. This sentence, written in 1847, now appears to us as one of fantastic foresight.

Since the July days, the party has passed through a period of illegality and persecution, and is now barely tolerated. It forms itself into an assault column. From its members, it demands self-denial, passion and discipline; in return, it offers only the satisfaction of serving the proletariat. Yet we see its forces grow. In April it had numbered seventy-two organizations with a membership of 80,000. By the end of July its forces numbered 200,000 members, in 162 organizations.


The Bolshevik party had been marching towards the seizure of power, with its astonishing steadfastness, lucidity and skill, ever since the fall of the autocracy. To be convinced of this it is necessary simply to read Letters from Afar, written by Lenin before his departure from Zurich in March 1917. But perhaps, like any historical definition that tries to be precise, that is too narrow a statement. The party had been marching towards power ever since the day when its obscure Central Committee of emigrés (like Lenin and Zinoviev) declared, in 1914, that imperialist war must be transformed into civil war’, or since the even earlier day when it was born as a party of civil war at the London Congress of 1903.

When Lenin arrived in Petrograd, on 3 April 1917, he proceeded to amend the political line of the party’s central news-paper; this done, he set about defining the objectives of the working class. Tirelessly he urged the Bolshevik militants to use persuasion to win the working masses. In the first days of July, when an infuriated popular upsurge broke for the first time against the Kerensky administration, the Bolsheviks refused to follow this movement. These are leaders, in the real sense of the word, who are refusing to be led. They want to avoid a premature insurrection: the provinces are not ready, the situation is not ripe. They pull back the movement, resist the stream, risk unpopularity. The proletariat’s consciousness embodied in the party is entering into a momentary conflict with the revolutionary impatience of the masses. It is a dangerous conflict. If the enemy had been bolder and more intelligent, the masses’ impatience would have given it an easy victory. ‘Now,’ said Lenin to his friends, just after the July riots, ‘they’re going to shoot the lot of us.’ In theory Lenin might have been right; it was perhaps the bourgeoisie’s sole chance to reduce the proletariat with a preventive slaughter that would have been effective for months, if not years. Fortunately, the bourgeoisie was less skilful at its own game than Lenin was. It lacked daring (it certainly did not lack the intention).

After July, the more energetic bourgeois leaders thought of remedying this deficiency. They had ideas of a ‘strong’ authority. Russia was between two dictatorships – Kerensky’s administration could now be no more than an interregnum. Kornilov’s abortive coup (secretly aided by Savinkov and Kerensky) unleashed a fresh mobilization of the proletariat. The situation worsened, threatening to become quite desperate for the proletariat, whose privations grew daily. The workers felt, correctly, that if they could not win they would be beaten into the ground. Likewise for the peasantry: the situation worsened as they saw the agrarian revolution, promised to them by the S-Rs who were now in power, constantly deferred and in danger of summary suppression by some Napoleon of counter-revolutionary reaction. For the army and the fleet it worsened as they were still compelled to wage a hopeless war in the service of enemy classes. It worsened for the bourgeoisie, whose position was getting more precarious each day through the collapse of the transport system, depreciation of industrial equipment, defeats at the front, the crisis of production, the famine, the unruliness of the masses, the lack of authority of the new government, and the feebleness of its coercive machine.

After the July days, Lenin had remarked to V. Bonch-Bruyevich: ‘The insurrection is absolutely unavoidable. In a short while it will become imperative. It cannot fail to take place.’ From mid-September on, the party begins to prepare itself decisively for the battle. The Democratic Conference, which is supposed to act as a preparatory Parliament, is in session from 14–22 September.

Lenin, in hiding at the time, insistently demands the recall of the Bolshevik faction from the Conference, where some of the comrades would be tempted to take the role of a parliamentary opposition (though a vocal one). Supported by the majority of the party, Lenin’s line carries the day, and the Bolsheviks march out, slamming the door behind them. Trotsky reads their declaration to the remaining delegates.

The impassioned speech’ of L.D. Trotsky, who had just tasted the joys of prison life under the government of the bourgeoisie and the Mensheviks, cut like a sword through all the plots concocted by the various orators of the Centre. He told them, clearly and unmistakeably, that there was no road back for us; that the workers had no retreat in mind, and saw no other way forward except that of a new revolution. He was heard in complete silence; a tremor passed over the comfortable seats and the boxes occupied by the leaders of the bourgeoisie ... From the gallery and balcony, applause thundered down ... With this the will to insurrection was clearly affirmed, and all the tact and authority of the Central Committee was needed to stop it from proceeding to immediate action, for it was still too soon – the July days could have had an even bloodier repetition.[9]

In the last days of September (alternatively the first days of October) the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Sverdlov, Yakovleva, Oppokov, Zinoviev, Kamenev) met in Petrograd, in the apartment of the Menshevik Sukhanov. Even the principle of the insurrection was in dispute. Kamenev and Zinoviev (Nogin and Rykov, who were of the same opinion, being absent from this meeting) stated their view that the insurrection might perhaps itself be successful, but that it would be almost impossible to maintain power afterwards owing to the economic pressures and the crisis in the food supply. The majority voted for the insurrection, and actually fixed the date for 15 October. [10] Let us insist on one point in this connection. This difference of judgement must emphatically not be taken as a sign of any tendency towards opportunism or Menshevik feebleness in men who had proved themselves in years of struggle and who later, throughout the whole of the civil war, were exempt from any charge of faint-heartedness. It may be taken as indicating that certain tried revolutionists were inclined to overestimate the strength of the enemy and to lack confidence, to a certain extent, in the forces of the proletariat. One does not play at insurrection. It is the duty of all revolutionaries to weigh in advance every eventuality and possibility. If they are concerned at the possible defeat of the revolution their apprehension has nothing in common with the counter-revolutionary fears of opportunists, who dread nothing more than the victory of the proletariat. Still, since these legitimate fears rested on a faulty interpretation of reality, they were immensely dangerous for the party’s whole activity, which they could have warped irreparably. Time works in favour of revolution at certain hours; works against it once the hour has passed; and an action postponed may well become an action lost to history. For its hesitation in 1920, the Italian proletariat has paid very dearly; the opportunity which was offered the German proletariat in 1923 [11] will, no doubt of it, recur: but when? The error of the Bolshevik opponents of the insurrection was therefore a most serious one, as they have since admitted. [12]

On 10 October, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party (present: Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, Uritsky, Dzerzhinsky, Kollontai, Bubnov, Sokolnikov and Lomov) voted ten to two in favour of immediate preparation for the insurrection. The work of preparation was assigned to a Political Bureau consisting of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Sokolnikov and Bubnov.


Within the party, the relationship which holds between the mass of militants and the leadership may be compared to that obtaining between the working masses and the party itself.

The party is the nervous system of the working class, its brain. The leaders and the key members perform the role of brain and nervous system within the organism of the party also. This comparison must not be taken in a literal sense: functions in a biological organism are differentiated in a manner very different from the allocation of functions in a social group. But, however politic-ally conscious they may be, the rank and file of the party is unable to get to know the situation as a whole. Whatever the personal worth of these comrades, they must inevitably lack information, liaison, training and the revolutionary’s theoretical and professional preparation, if they are not within that core of party members who have been selected and tried by long years of struggle and work, enjoy the goodwill of the movement as a whole, have access to the apparatus of the party, and are accustomed to thinking and working collectively. Just as the soldier in the trenches sees only a tiny portion of the battlefield and cannot, whatever his personal talents may be, acquire a clear picture of the action under way, just as the engineering worker at his machine cannot take in the functioning of the whole factory at a glance, so the rank-and-file party member, on the basis of his own resources, can only make his mind up through general ideas and judgements, and through acquaintance with a partial area of reality. True proletarian leaders are, all at the same time, guides, pilots, captains and directors: of enterprises: I mean the formidable enter-prise of demolishing a social system and constructing another. They have to uncover, by the scientific analysis of historic processes, the tendency of events and the possibilities that are open in them. They have to grasp the action that is possible and necessary for the proletariat, according with historical necessity and not with its wish or hope of the moment. [13] In a word, they must see reality, grasp possibility, and conceive the action which will be the link between the real and the possible. In doing so, the only vantage-point they can ever adopt is that of the proletariat’s own higher interests. Their whole thinking has to be that of the proletariat, with the advantage of scientific discipline. Proletarian class-consciousness attains its highest expression in the leaders of the organized vanguard of the working class. As personalities, they are great only in the measure that they incarnate the masses. In this sense only they are giants – anonymous giants. In voicing the consciousness of the mass they display a virtue which, for the proletariat, is sheer necessity: a terrible impersonality.

So much is true. But the value of such leaders – the genius of a Lenin – lies in the fact that the development of class-consciousness is not foreordained from all time; mass consciousness can remain latent and unexpressed at a particular moment; the possibilities contained in the situation need never be perceived; the action necessary for the victory or the safety of the proletariat may never be devised. The recent history of the proletariat in western Europe offers only too many examples of opportunities missed through the failure of class consciousness to crystallize.

We can define the proletarian leader, finally, this man of a new epoch, by contrasting him with the leaders of the possessing classes both of today and of previous eras. The latter are the blind instruments of history; the revolutionary is its conscious instrument. [14]

The October Revolution offers us an almost perfect model of the proletarian party. Relatively few as they may be, its militants live with the masses and among them. Long and testing years – a revolution, then illegality, exile, prison, endless ideological battles – have given it excellent activists and real leaders, whose parallel thinking was strengthened in collective action. Personal initiative and the panache of strong personalities were balanced by intelligent centralization, voluntary discipline and respect for recognized mentors. Despite the efficiency of its organizational apparatus, the party suffered not the slightest bureaucratic deformation. No fetishism of organizational forms can be observed in it; it is free of decadent and even of dubious traditions; its dominant tradition is that of the war against opportunism – it is revolutionary down to the marrow of its bones. This makes it all the more remarkable that profound and persistent hesitations arose in its leading circles on the eve of action, and that several of its most important members declared themselves strongly opposed to the seizure of power.


We have already remarked the powerful unity of character possessed by Lenin. He was a man hewn of a single block, totally devoted, at every moment of his life, to one sole work. He was one with his party, and through the party, with the proletariat. In the decisive hours he was one with the whole working people of Russia, and with the proletarians and oppressed peoples, of all the countries in the world that lay beyond the bloody frontiers. That is the reason for his emergence in October 1917 as the unchallenged, unrivalled leader of the proletarian revolution.

The spirit of the masses during September and October has been described. In the middle of September Lenin sends an urgent letter to the Central Committee calling on them to seize power without delay. Another letter follows almost immediately, dealing with Marxism and Insurrection. Even before the seizure of power, Lenin (who knows that power is sometimes harder to hold than to acquire, and that it is essential to disclose to revolutionaries what strength they have) writes his pamphlet entitled Will the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? This is at the end of September. On 7 October, a new article, a new call: ‘The Revolutionary Crisis has Matured’. From this moment on, he is possessed by a raging impatience. His letters follow, persuasive, authoritative, urging, hectoring, to the Central Committee, to the party, to the membership. Over the head of the Central Committee he addresses the Moscow and the Petrograd committees at the beginning of October: To Temporise Now is a Crime. On 8 October, his Advice from an Outsider on the insurrection appears. On 16–17 October comes a long and memorable letter, To the Comrades, energetically refuting the arguments of those opposed to the rising. The last hesitations are now overcome. Lenin the leader, moulded over twenty-three years of struggle since 1895, acting in unison with the peasants, workers, soldiers, sailors and the whole labouring people, has marked the hour and given the signal for the crucial act. It still needed all his energy, allied with the efforts of other comrades, to surmount the hesitations that might have proved fatal.

His writings of this period have been collected in a book with the apt title On the Road to Insurrection. It is a vital work, whose significance has yet to be fully valued. A model of revolutionary dialectics, a treatise on the theory and practice of insurrection, a textbook on the art of winning the class war: we believe that it ranks with the Communist Manifesto, to which it forms, on the eve of the proletarian epoch, a necessary complement. [15]

Lenin’s doctrine of insurrection may be summed up in these lines: In order for an insurrection to be crowned with success it should have the support, not of a conspiracy, not of a party, but of the advanced class: that first of ’all. The insurrection must rest on a popular revolutionary upsurge: that is second. The insurrection must come at the historic turning-point of the expanding revolution, at the moment when the activity of the masses reaches its peak, and when the hesitation in the ranks of the enemy, and among the false friends of the revolution, the double-dealers and the fainthearts, reaches its peak. That is third. By thus posing the three conditions of insurrection, Marxism distinguishes itself from Blanquism [Marxism and Insurrection]. [16]

It is also summarized in this dictum of Marx: ‘Never play with insurrection, but once it is begun remember that it must be carried through to the end.’ [17]

Why is it that Lenin, among so many good revolutionists who like him aimed for the proletarian revolution, many of whom saw the way forward as clearly as he, still stands out at this time as the chief? Many responsible members in Moscow and Petrograd – and it would be wrong simply to restrict ourselves to the two capitals and the principal leaders – are going consciously on the same road to insurrection. Trotsky, the President of the Soviet, never had the slightest hesitation, from the moment of his arrival in Russia, on the road that must be followed; he was in complete agreement with Lenin, except over details of execution. [18] In the party’s Central Committee, the great majority of the militants vote for action. But none among these revolutionaries enjoys an ascendancy comparable to Lenin’s. Most of them are his pupils and recognize him as their master. Trotsky, whose talents as an organizer of victory now become strikingly revealed, has for many years been an isolated figure in the Russian Social-Democracy, equally distant both from the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks; to workers’ detachment tell the truth, he has never presented the impression of being a party leader. Many Bolsheviks still remember him as an adversary. He is a great newcomer, who has come on to the Central Committee at the end of July (at the Sixth Bolshevik Congress) a few days after joining the party. The simple, basic truth is that it is the party that makes the leader, for without the party there can be no leader. It is because he has been the creator of the proletarian party that Lenin becomes the leader of the revolution.


The events which now unfold in the two capitals are very different, but display a remarkable basic parallelism.

The initiative in forming the Red Guards in Petrograd came from the factory workers, who began it instinctively after the fall of Tsardom. In disarming the old order they had to begin to arm themselves. In April, two of the Bolshevik militants, Shlyapnikov [19] and Yeremeyev, began to put the spontaneous organization of the Red Guards into a systematic shape. The first regular units, if they can be called such, of’ this workers’ militia were formed in the outlying proletarian districts, principally in Vyborg. The Mensheviks and S-Rs tried, at first, to oppose the movement. At a closed session of the Soviet held in June, when they still had a majority, the Social-Democrat Tseretelli demanded the disarmament of the workers. He was too late. Proletarian command units had now been set up in every ward, and these were co-ordinated by a General Staff Headquarters for the city. Formed on a factory basis as a volunteer army – it was not individual workers but the factory as a whole that took the decision to enlist together or form its own unit-the first Red Guard detachments undertook the duty of protecting the great working-class demonstrations. During the July riots the Vyborg section kept the troops sent by Kerensky at a respectful distance. At this time Petrograd had about ten thousand Red Guards.

With Kornilov’s coup d’état (25–30 September) and the march of a Cossack division on the capital, the imminence of counter-revolution forced the Menshevik-S-R Soviet to arm the workers at speed. Not without friction: the munitions workers at Schusselburg sent a bargeload of grenades, but the Soviet refused to take delivery of them – whereupon the Red Guard took delivery without further ado. The initiative of the workers made up for everything, sweeping past the insincerity and feeble will of the Socialists of ‘social peace’. The mobilization of the proletariat against Kornilov showed that an abortive counter-revolution can be as disastrous for the bourgeoisie as the failure of an insurrection is for the workers.

In September, the use of weapons was being taught in seventy-nine Petrograd factories. In a good many factories all the workers carried arms. The military organization of the Bolshevik party could not find enough instructors for these masses. On the eve of the October rising, the Red Guard numbered 20,000 men, organized in battalions of 400 to 600 each divided into three companies, a machine-gun section, a liaison section and an ambulance section. Some of the battalions had an armoured car. Non-commissioned officers (workers) headed the battalions and the companies. Duties were performed on a rota system, with two thirds of the workers at their jobs in the factory at any time, and the other third ‘on guard’, with wages at their job rate paid for time on duty. The rules of the Red Guard required, for admittance, sponsorship from a Socialist party, a factory committee or a trade union. Three absences without excuse were grounds for expulsion. Infractions of discipline were tried by a jury of comrades. Unauthorized use of arms was an offence, and orders had to be obeyed without discussion. Each Red Guard carried a numbered identity card. The officers were elected; in practice, though, they were often selected by factory committees and other working-class bodies, with nominations for senior posts always submitted to the ward Soviets for approval. If the officers had not already received military training they were obliged to take special courses. [20]

It is worth remarking that this impressive initiative on the party of Petrograd’s proletariat was the fulfilment of Lenin’s own wishes in the urgent advice he gave in one of his Letters From Afar, written from Zurich on 11 March 1917 (24, Old Style). This advice was ignored at the time and the letter was only published later on as a historical document. In it Lenin discusses the ‘proletarian militias’ and appeals to the workers: ‘Do not allow the police force to be re-established! Do not give up your own local organizations!’ And form a militia without delay, including the women and the young people. ‘ Miracles of organization must be achieved’, he concluded.

In Moscow, it proved to be much harder to establish the Red Guard. The authorities, who were headed by S-Rs and Mensheviks, succeeded in virtually disarming the workers and part of the garrison. Grenades had to be manufactured in secret and explosives obtained from the provinces. The organization of the command and of communications was deplorably late. These weaknesses and delays were to cost the proletariat of Moscow a bloody street battle lasting six days.

The military organization of the party now numbered more than 100,000 soldiers and a certain number of officers. Out of this, Military Revolutionary Committees were to be formed everywhere, the organs that directed the insurrection.


The conflict between the two powers (Kerensky’s Provisional Government and the Soviet) entered a new, sharp phase from 16 October, when the Military Revolutionary Committee, headed by Antonov-Ovseyenko, Podvoisky and Chudnovsky, was formed by the Soviet. The garrison in Petrograd had now been won over to the Bolsheviks. The government tried to send the most revolutionary regiments off to the front, arguing that a German offensive was imminent. The MRC, now with its own communications, intelligence and munitions departments, began by appointing commissars in every unit of the troops. The bourgeoisie was arming – but the appointment of commissars at the arms depots put a stop to that. The delegates of the MRC were welcomed warmly by the soldiers, who knew that the Committee was determined to prevent them being sent off to the front. The MRC in effect refused to countersign the order for the departure of the Red regiments, pleading that it needed further information on the defence forces now available. The MRC now assumed the functions of a General Staff for the Red Guards, and issued definite instructions to the troops not to pay any attention to orders proceeding from their regular commanders. From then on, the insurrection was, as it were, latent. Two powers took the measure of one another, and two military authorities, one of them insurrectionary, deliberately countermanded each other’s orders.

The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was due to meet in Petrograd on 15 October. The Mensheviks succeeded in having it postponed until the 25th (7 November, New Style), thus gaining a respite of ten days for the bourgeoisie’s Provisional Government. Nobody could doubt that the Congress, where the Bolsheviks were certain of a majority, would vote for the seizure of power. ‘You are fixing the date of the revolution!’ said the Mensheviks to their Bolshevik opponents. In order that the predetermined conclusion of the Congress should not be a simple pipe-dream, it was necessary to support that decision by force of arms. Concerning the date of the uprising, two points of view were manifested: Trotsky wanted to link the action to the Congress itself, believing that an insurrection conducted on the party’s own initiative would have less chance of winning mass support; Lenin believed it ‘criminal’ to temporize until the Congress, since he feared that the Provisional Government would forestall the insurrection by a vigorous offensive. This fear, though legitimate, was not justified by the actual march of events: the enemy was caught napping.

In our opinion, the conflict here arose from two perfectly correct conceptions arising from different vantage-points. One stemmed from the strategic consideration of linking the party’s action with a demand immediately intelligible to the broadest mass of people (‘All power to the Soviets!’); this is, naturally, a condition of success. The other was based on the general policy of shattering any illusion that genuine proletarian power could be instituted before the insurrection. Once this possibility was admitted in theory, why not allow of power without an insurrection? There lay the slippery slope. Ever since 1906, Lenin had attacked the tendency to gloss over or discard the question of insurrection, in favour of the question of the organization of revolutionary power ... His position of realism could be summarized as: Conquer first! And so Lenin wanted the insurrection to precede the Congress, which would have no alternative but to sanction the accomplished deed. He urged this policy in a personal meeting with the organizers of the insurrection. [21] The details of the preparation interested him passionately: he would not have the attack put off at any price. Nevsky and Podvoisky tried vainly to persuade him that a few days’ extra preparation would only increase the chances of success. ’The enemy will profit by it too,’ he replied obstinately.

Antonov-Ovseyenko has left a vivid account of his meeting with Vladimir Ilyich a few days before the rising, in a house in the working-class district of Vyborg. Lenin arrived in disguise; he was wanted by Kerensky’s police and in the event of capture would doubtless have ended his days through an ‘accidental’ bullet.

We found ourselves in the presence of a little, grey-haired old man wearing pince-nez, wearing them with a proper, almost debonair style. One would have taken him for a musician, a schoolmaster or a second-hand book-dealer. He took off his wig, and we recognized his eyes, sparkling as usual with a glint of humour. ‘Any news?’ he asked. He was full of confidence. He wondered about our chances of calling the fleet up into Petrograd. Somebody objected that this would leave the front at sea undefended, and his reply was brusque: ‘Come now, the sailors must know that there is more danger to the revolution in Petrograd than on the Baltic.’

The Peter-Paul Fortress was a source of considerable disquiet to the Military Revolutionary Committee; it was situated in the centre of the city on an island in the Neva, and bristled with guns. Its artillery overlooked the Winter Palace and its armoury held 100,000 rifles. Its garrison appeared to be loyal to the Provisional Government. Trotsky proposed that the fortress should be taken from the inside – by holding a meeting there. He went there with Lashevich, and succeeded.

22 October was the Day of the Petrograd Soviet, the occasion of the great plebiscite of the insurrection, as it were. The immediate cause of its meeting was fairly trivial, as often happens when events of immense importance are in the course of accomplishment and the last link, often a slender one, appears in the long chain of causes. The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, still under the sway of the social-peace Socialists, had charge of the funds of the Petrograd Soviet. The latter body needed a news-paper. It was decided to hold a series of large mass meetings on the 22nd with the aim of raising money for the foundation of the journal. The bourgeois press, terrified by this mobilization of masses, proclaimed that it was a riot, Kerensky gave out apparently forceful utterances which were nothing but wind: ‘All Russia is with us! We have nothing to fear!’ He issued a threat against ‘all those elements, groups and parties who are menacing the liberty of the Russian people, running the risk of opening the front to Germany, of a final and complete catastrophe’. A regular Galliffet or Cavaignac, [22] to all appearances. But his threats were empty. The 22nd saw a tremendous mobilization of the masses.

Every hall was filled to capacity. At the House of the People (Narodny Dom) thousands crammed the halls, the galleries, the corridors; in the great auditorium, human clusters were hanging, palpitating, like grapes from the metal structure of the building. John Reed was present. His notes on the gathering, where it was Trotsky’s voice that thrilled the crowd, deserve to be quoted: [23]

The people around me appeared to be in ecstasy. They seemed about to burst forth spontaneously in a religious hymn. Trotsky read a resolution to the general effect that they were ready to fight for the workers and peasants to the last drop of their blood ... Who was in favour of the resolution? The innumerable crowd raised their hands as a single man. I saw the burning eyes of men, women, adolescents, workers, soldiers, muzhiks. Trotsky went on. The hands remained raised. Trotsky said, ‘Let this vote be your oath. You swear to give all your strength, not to hesitate before any sacrifice, to support the Soviet, which undertakes to win the revolution and give you land, bread and peace.’ The hands remained raised. The crowd approved; they took the oath ... And the same scene was repeated all over Petrograd. The last preparations were made everywhere; everywhere they swore the last oath; thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men. It was the insurrection.


On the morning of the 25th, the revolutionary forces at Kronstadt received orders to prepare to undertake the defence of the Soviet Congress (for the whole offensive was conducted under the formal pretext of defence). We may pause for a moment at the preparations in Kronstadt, one of whose participants (I. Flerovsky) has left an excellent account. [24] The rational element of co-ordination, the superb organization of the rising as a military operation conducted along the rules of the war-making art, is clearly demonstrated here, and forms a striking contrast with the spontaneous or ill-organized movements which have been so numerous in the history of the proletariat.

The work of preparation for our intervention at Petrograd was carried on entirely at night ... The Navy Club was crammed with soldiers, sailors and workers, all of them obviously ready for battle ... The revolutionary General Staff worked out the plan of action precisely, designated the different units and sections for each task, checked off the inventory of supplies and ammunition, and picked the leading personnel. The night was one of strenuous work. The following ships were selected to take part in the operation: the torpedo-boat and minelayer Love, the old cruiser Dawn of Liberty (formerly Alexander III), the monitor Vulture. Love and Vulture were to land troops in Petrograd. The cruiser was to take up a position at the entrance to the maritime canal, commanding the coastal railway with its guns. In the streets an intense but noiseless activity went on. Army detachments and squads of sailors marched towards the harbour. Only the serious, resolute faces of the leading ranks could be seen by the light of the torches. There was no laughter, and no talk. The silence was broken only by the military tread of marching men, by brief commands, and by the grinding of the lorries as they went past. At the harbour, the ships were speedily loaded. Detachments of men waited in line on the quay patiently awaiting their turn to embark. Is it possible, I could not help thinking, that these are the last few moments before the great revolution? Everything is going off with such simplicity and neatness that one would imagine some perfectly ordinary military manoeuvre was involved. It all has so little resemblance to the vistas of revolution that we remember from history ... ‘This revolution,’ my companion said to me, ‘will go off in style.’

The revolution did, indeed, go off in proletarian style – with organization. That is why, in Petrograd, it won so easily and completely.

Another significant scene may be borrowed from Flerovsky’s memoirs. It is on board a ship steaming towards the insurrection. The delegate from the revolutionary headquarters enters the officers’ mess.

Here, the atmosphere is different. They are worried, anxious, disoriented. As I enter and salute, the officers rise. They keep standing while they listen to my brief explanation, and the orders I give. ‘We are going to overthrow the Provisional Government by force. Power is being transferred to the Soviets. We are. not relying on your sympathy: we have no need of it. But we do insist that you remain at your posts, going about your duties punctually and obeying our orders. We shall not give you any unnecessary trouble. That is all.’ ‘We understand,’ the captain answered. The officers went off immediately to their posts, and the captain mounted the bridge. A numerous flotilla came to the assistance of the workers and the garrison. Up the Neva sailed the cruisers Aurora, Oleg, Novik, Zabyika and Samson, two torpedo-boats, and various other ships.


Three comrades had been deputed to organize the seizure of the Winter Palace: Podvoisky, Antonov-Ovseyenko and Lashevich. [25] With them Chudnovsky was working, a splendid militant from the earliest days of the party, who was soon to meet his death in the Ukraine. The former Imperial residence is situated in the centre of the city on the banks of the Neva; the Peter-Paul Fortress faces it 600 yards away on the other bank. To the south, the palace’s facade looks out over a vast paved square which contains the Alexander I Column. A historic spot. At the back of the square, in a semi-circle, lie the huge, respectable offices of the former War Department and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Over this square, in 1879, the revolver shots fired by the student Soloviev cracked out, and the autocrat Alexander II could be seen running zigzag across the stones, with his head down, and pale with fright. In 1881 these dismal buildings were rocked by the dynamite charge set off under the Imperial apartments by the carpenter Stepan Khalturin. Under these windows, on 22 January 1905, soldiers opened fire on a crowd of workers who had come, carrying ikons and singing hymns, to petition the Tsar, the ‘little father’ of his people. Here lay about fifty dead and more than a thousand wounded; and the autocracy was wounded, too, to the death, by its own bullets.

Now, on 25 October, from the morning onwards, the Bolshevik regiments and the Red Guards began to encircle the Winter Palace, where Kerensky’s government had its offices. The assault was planned for 9 p.m., although Lenin was impatient and wanted it all over before then. While the iron ring closed slowly around the Palace, the Congress of the Soviets was assembling at Smolny, in a former high school for young ladies of the nobility. In a small room in the same building, Lenin was pacing up and down nervously, still an outlaw, still in his old man’s disguise. Of every new arrival, he asked, ‘The Palace – has it not been taken yet ?’ His fury mounted against the ditherers, the procrastinators, the indecisive ones. He threatened Podvoisky – ‘We shall have to shoot him, yes, shoot him!’ The soldiers, huddled around fires in the streets near the Palace, showed the same impatience. People heard them murmur about how ‘the Bolsheviks are starting to play at diplomacy too’. Once more, Lenin’s feelings even on a point of detail were those of the mass. Podvoisky, certain of victory, kept back the assault. The doomed enemy was demoralized with all the anxiety. Revolutionary blood was now easily spared, and each drop was precious.

The first summons to surrender was conveyed to the ministers at six o’clock. At eight, there was a second ultimatum. Under a flag of truce, a Bolshevik orator addressed the defenders of the palace, and the soldiers of a crack battalion crossed over to the revolutionaries. They were welcomed by loud hurrahs over the square which was now the field of battle. A few minutes later, the Women’s Battalion surrendered. The terrified ministers, guarded in a vast room without lighting by a few young officer-cadets, still hesitated to give in. Kerensky had run off, promising them that he would return shortly at the head of a troop of loyal soldiers. They expected to be torn to pieces by a howling mob. The guns of the Aurora – firing only blank cartridges! – finally demoralized the defending side. The Reds’ attack met only very slight resistance. Grenades exploded on the great marble staircases, there were hand-to-hand tussles in the corridors. In the twilight of a great ante-chamber, a thin line of pale cadets stood with bayonets crossed before a panelled door.

It is the last rampart of the last bourgeois government of Russia. Antonov-Ovseyenko, Chudnovsky and Podvoisky push past these powerless bayonets. One youngster whispers to them, ‘I’m on your side!’ Behind the door is the Provisional Government: thirteen wretched, trembling gentlemen, thirteen crestfallen faces hidden by shadow. As they are escorted out of the Palace by Red Guards, a cry for their blood goes up. Some soldiers and sailors have a fancy for a massacre. The worker-guards restrain them: ‘Don’t spoil the proletarian victory by excesses!’

The ministers of Kerensky go off to the Peter-Paul Fortress, that old Bastille which has held all the old martyrs of Russian freedom. There they meet the ministers of the last Tsar. It is all over.

In the adjoining areas of the city, normal traffic had not been interrupted. On the quays, the idlers were staring peaceably.

One detail more on the organization of the attack. In order to ensure that any temporary successes won by the enemy should not interrupt their work, the military leaders of the uprising had pre-pared two reserve headquarters.


Just as the Reds are surrounding the Winter Palace, the Petrograd Soviet meets. Lenin comes out of hiding, and he and Trotsky announce the seizure of power. The Soviets will offer a just peace to all the belligerent powers; the secret treaties are going to be published. Lenin’s first words underline the importance of the bond between workers and peasants, which is yet to be consolidated:

All over Russia, the vast majority of peasants have said: Enough of playing with the capitalists, we are marching now with the workers! One single decree, abolishing the landlords’ property, will win us the trust of the peasantry. They will realize that their only safety lies in their association with the workers. We shall inaugurate workers’ control of industry

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets opens in the evening in the great white ballroom at Smolny, flooded with light from enormous chandeliers. 562 delegates are present: 382 Bolsheviks, thirty-one non-party Bolshevik sympathizers, seventy Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, thirty-six Centre Socialist-Revolutionaries, sixteen Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, three National Socialist-Revolutionaries, fifteen United Internationalist Social-Democrats, twenty-one Menshevik supporters of national defence, seven Social-Democratic delegates from various nationalist groups and five anarchists. The hall is packed tight, the atmosphere is feverish. The Menshevik Dan opens the Congress on behalf of the outgoing All-Russian Executive; as the new officers are elected, guns thunder on the Neva. The resistance at the Winter Palace is still dragging on. Kamenev, ‘dressed in his Sunday best, and beaming’ [26], becomes Chairman in place of Dan. He proposes an agenda with three headings: organization of authority; war and peace; the Constituent Assembly. The oppositional Menshevik and S-R parties take the floor first. For the Mensheviks there is Martov, their most honest and talented leader, whose extreme physical weakness seemed to symbolize the bankruptcy, despite his great personal courage, of the ideology he served. ‘Martov, planted on the rostrum as usual, with a trembling, bloodless hand over his hip, an undulating, half-comical figure, shaking his head of unruly hair, urges a peaceful solution to the conflict ...’ A fine time to say it! Mstislavsky speaks for the Left S-Rs. His party mistrusted the Provisional Government and was sympathetic to the seizure of power by the Soviets, but had refused to join in the rising. His speech is one qualification after another. Yes, all power to the Soviets – particularly since they have already seized power. But military operations must be stopped immediately. How could we deliberate in the middle of gunfire? To this, Trotsky replies with alacrity: ‘Who, now, is going to be upset by the sound of the guns? On the contrary, it can only improve our work!’

The roar of the guns makes the glass in the windows rattle. The Mensheviks and Right S-Rs denounce the ‘crime which is taking place against Fatherland and Revolution’, and a sailor from the cruiser Aurora comes to the rostrum to answer them.

A bronzed figure he was [Mstislavsky relates], with brusque, confident gestures, and a voice that came straight out, cutting the air like a knife. As soon as he mounted the rostrum, stocky and sinuous, his shaggy chest showing below the high collar that curved back gracefully around his tousled head, the hall rang with cheers. ... ‘The Winter Palace is finished,’ he said. ‘The Aurora is firing at point-blank range.’

‘Oh!’ groaned the Menshevik Abramovich, standing up distraught and twisting his hands. ‘Oh!’ The man from the Aurora responded to this outcry with a large-hearted, graceful gesture, and made haste to calm Abramovich down with a loud whisper that trembled with quiet laughter: ‘They’re firing with blanks. That’s all that will be needed for the ministers and the ladies of the Women’s Battalion.’ Tumult in the hall. The Mensheviks of national defence and the right S-Rs, about sixty delegates, leave, determined ‘to die with the Provincial Government’. They do not get very far: their diminutive procession finds the streets barred to them by the Red Guards, and disperses one by one ...

Late in the night, the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries resolved in the end to follow the Bolsheviks and remain in the Congress.

Lenin did not come to the rostrum until the session of the following morning, when the great decrees on land, peace and workers’ control of production were voted. His appearance set off an immense acclamation from the whole hall. He waited for it to end, looking out calmly over the triumphant crowd. Then, quite simply, without any gesture, his two hands resting on the stand, his broad shoulders leaning forward slightly, he said:

‘We will proceed to construct the Socialist order.’


The economic necessities behind the revolution were expressed much more directly in Moscow. The city was governed by a Municipal Duma composed of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and intellectual elements, where the S-Rs and the Kadets enjoyed a fairly stable majority which was often reinforced by the Mensheviks. It was an unpopular assembly, and the audience in the galleries used to demonstrate noisily – as in the Convention of the French Revolution – by applauding the Bolshevik opposition. An election for the Ward Dumas on 24 September gave the Bolsheviks their opportunity to sound out the masses. The election gave a majority to the Bolsheviks in fourteen wards out of seventeen. The Kadets also made gains. The parties of social peace were crushed.

The Bolsheviks’ victory was a tribute to their understanding of the workers’ needs. The famine was acute; the last of the grain reserves were being exhausted; the day was approaching when the city would have no more bread. The bread ration was cut to 100 grams per person per day. [27] The collapse of the transport system blocked any possible improvement. Extremely energetic measures were needed if the population was to be saved: centralization of the food supply system, municipal control over bread production – i.e. the expropriation of the bakeries – requisition of buildings, compulsory registration of all inhabitants on a single ration list. These measures formed the programme of the Bolsheviks. They had serious implications. The food crisis fitted in with the class war now being conducted by the propertied classes. It complemented the effects of the employers’ sabotage of production. In order to produce a real answer to the famine it would be necessary to take control of the whole of production.

The Bolshevik demands were:

  1. The immediate switching from war production of all enterprises which were manufacturing basic necessities before the war. ‘The continuation of the war was causing a failure of the capacity for revolutionary action among the proletariat and the army, in the end the failure of the revolution’ (A. Schlichter).
  2. Requisition of factories so as to put an end to the sabotage of production by the management and bring about the rapid return of peacetime production. The aim here would be to exchange industrial products for the peasants’ grain.
  3. Compulsory labour for all industrial employees, who might be tempted-to go on strike against socialization.
  4. Requisition of stores in order to put an end to speculation.

By the end of the first week of October, the leather-workers of Moscow had entered the tenth week of a strike: no mean achievement on a bread ration of ten grams per day. The woodworkers’, engineering, textile and municipal workers’ unions were preparing to strike. On their side, the employers organized a kind of strike of capital: partial lock-outs, shut-down of factories on a variety of pretexts, covert or blatant restrictions in production, sales of equipment, liquidation – all justified by ‘general economic difficulties’. The condition of the Moscow worker now became desperate. Since the beginning of the war the cost of living had in-creased six and a half times; the cost of manufactured necessities (cloth, shoes, firewood, soap, etc.) had gone up twelvefold. Wages, on the other hand, had only quadrupled. The workers’ demands for the recognition of their factory committees were rejected. The Provisional Government, which sympathized with the employers, made no secret of its ill-will towards the working class. Fierce strikes were ready to break out at any moment. The crisis had matured. On 19 October, the Bolshevik majority in the Moscow Soviet, on the motion of Bukharin and Smirnov, adopted a series of resolutions of a quasi-insurrectional character.

The Soviet decreed that the demands of the strikers must be satisfied, by agreement with the trade unions; capitalists guilty of industrial sabotage to be arrested; suspension of rent collections; the mobilization of the masses for the seizure of power by the revolutionary people. The trade unions were asked to implement the eight-hour day under their own responsibility, and the leather-workers who were on strike were told to get the factories running themselves.

A few days later a city conference of the party was held. Semashko, Ossinsky and Smirnov dealt with the insurrection. As one witness recounts,

Figures and statistics at their fingertips, they demonstrate that if the proletariat, which alone is capable of ending the war, does not take power, Russia will be ruined, there will be no bread or fuel, the railways and the factories will cease to function ... Their speeches have a scientific, almost academic tone. It did not seem so much like an assembly of revolutionists planning a social upheaval, as the meeting of some learned society. The audience, made up for the most part of delegates from the military branches, seemed apathetic. Nobody took the floor to make any objection. When the vote was put, all hands were raised for the motion; the meeting voted unanimously for the insurrection.

The topic under discussion was regarded as only too obvious. [28]

On 23 October, the Moscow Soviet issued its Decree No. 1, making the hiring and firing of all workers the responsibility of the factory committees. On 24 October, the Soviet voted for the organization of a Red Guard. Each of these votes occasioned stormy battles with the Mensheviks and S-Rs, both of whom defended what they called democracy and legality, every inch of the way.

On 25 October, while the insurrection was under way at Petrograd, the Moscow Soviet instituted, somewhat late in the circumstances, its own Military Revolutionary Committee. The S-Rs and the Mensheviks exhorted the workers to control themselves, and avoid the dreadful example of the usurpers in Petrograd: only the Constituent Assembly would have the right to adjudicate on the destinies of Russia. Defeated in the vote, the Mensheviks still entered the MRC ‘in order to mitigate as far as possible the effects of the Bolsheviks’ projected coup d’état’ – in other words, to sabotage the insurrection. They were allowed to go on the Committee.

The City Duma had met the same night in secret session, without the Bolshevik representatives, and there had set up its own Committee of Public Safety. The Mayor, Rudnev, a Socialist-Revolutionary, presided over its preparation for battle. Colonel Ryabtsev, another S-R, made haste to arm the cadets in the military schools – the Junkers – as well as the students and high-school youth: in short, the youth of the bourgeoisie and middle classes.


The battle in the streets lasted six days and was very hard going. The initiative in the operations was taken by the Committee of Public Safety which, on the 27th, during the joint session of the Dumas, ordered the MRC to dissolve itself within fifteen minutes. It was a ragged, bitter and bloody struggle, whose manoeuvres we shall not recount in detail. The urban physiognomy of Moscow is that of a city that has grown up in concentric rings over several centuries around the palaces and churches of the Kremlin, which is itself a sort of city, fortified and surrounded with high crenellated walls and pointed towers. A bird’s-eye view of the Kremlin would reveal it to be a triangle, whose base is the left bank of the River Moskva. The city, built on a number of hills, all in narrow streets whose irregular circuits run in and out of each other, with innumerable churches set in gardens, and long, tree-lined boulevards throughout, offers numberless possibilities both for attack and for defence. However, the strategic options of the opposing sides were delimited from the beginning. The MRC shared offices with the Soviet in the centre of the city at the top of Tverskaya Street, in the former residence of the governor. The liquidation of this headquarters became the objective of the government troops. The MRC’s problem was to hold on to its premises long enough for the Red Guard to come to its help from the suburban districts, taking the Whites from the rear. Under these terms, the Whites’ capture of the Kremlin was no more than an episode, though doubtless a significant one.

The Reds had the advantage in numbers:

Our enemies [writes Muralov] must have had about ten thousand men: two military schools, six NCO training-schools, the military sections of the S-Rs and the Mensheviks, the youth from the schools. We had at least fifty thousand reliable fighters: about fifteen thousand active troops, twenty-five thousand reserve troops, three thousand armed workers, six light-artillery units and several heavy guns.

On one side, the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie and their intelligentsia; on the other, the grey mass of soldiers and workers. Nevertheless, the faulty organization and the hesitations of the Red side kept the outcome of the struggle uncertain.

On the 28th, at midnight, the Junkers (cadets from the military colleges) surround the Kremlin. Already the Committee of Public Safety is taking over the railway stations, the power station, the central telephone exchange. Cut off from the MRC, Berzin, the commander of the Kremlin, surrenders it after being told that ‘order has been restored’ and given a solemn promise that the lives of his men will be spared. He goes personally to open the doors, and is at once struck down, stabbed and savaged by the Junkers. One of their colonels says, ‘What, you’re still alive, are you? You have got to be killed.’ The workers in the Kremlin Arsenal do not hear of the surrender until the cadets come to arrest their Works Committee. In the morning, they are ordered to line up in one of the vast courtyards of the Kremlin wearing their identity discs, not far from Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich’s massive cannon. There, the covers are suddenly taken off three machine-guns in front of them. I quote the account of one of them who managed to get away. [29]

The men still cannot believe that they are going to be shot like this, without trial, without sense – they have taken no part in the fighting. A command bellows out: ‘In line now! Eyes front!’ The men stand rigid, fingers along the seams of their trousers. At a signal, the din of the three machine-guns blends with cries of terror, sobs and death-rattles. All those who are not mown down by the first shots dash towards the only exit, a little door behind them which has been left open. The machine-guns carry on firing; in a few minutes the doorway is blocked by a heap of men, lying there screaming and bleeding, into which the bullets still rain ... The walls of the surrounding buildings are spattered with blood and bits of flesh.

This massacre is not an isolated act. Practically everywhere the Whites conducted arrests followed by executions. At the Alexandrovskoye Military College, a court-martial took thirty seconds to pass sentences of death which were carried out forthwith in the courtyard. Let us remember these facts. They show the firm intention of the defenders of the Provisional Government to drown the workers’ revolution in blood. The White terror had begun.

The news of the massacre at the Kremlin came in the middle of the negotiations that were being conducted for an armistice between the MRC and Colonel Ryabtsev. The Whites were only trying to gain time until reinforcements could arrive. The MRC now understood that it was victory or death. Its headquarters were almost surrounded; but, from every working-class quarter, Red Guards and revolutionary regiments sprang up in masses to their help, so that the besiegers were themselves encircled in a ring of steel. On the 29th, in the evening, after a terrible day in which the headquarters of the insurrection nearly fell, a twenty-four hours’ truce was signed: it was quickly broken by the arrival of a shock battalion to join the Whites. The Reds on their side were reinforced by artillery. Gun batteries went into action on the squares, and the Whites retreated to the Kremlin. After long vacillations, due to their desire to avoid damage to historic monuments, the MRC decided to order the bombardment of the Kremlin. The Whites surrendered at 4 p.m. on 2 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 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.

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


The differences between the Petrograd and the Moscow insurrections are striking.

At Petrograd the movement, prepared minutely over many weeks, is essentially political, a conscious seizure of power. The revolution took place sharp on the hour, as Trotsky put it. Two factors dominated events: the party and the garrison. The action was energetically planned and implemented without hesitation. Its success was rapid, with scarcely any bloodshed. The Petrograd insurrection offers us the model of a mass movement with perfect organization.

At Moscow the spontaneity of the masses outran their organization. The movement responded directly to economic pressures, with a less developed consciousness of political ends and means. Waverings, hesitations and delays formed considerable obstacles. The enemy, though numerically inferior, was well-organized, resolute and equipped with a clear political understanding of the end – the restoration of order – and the means – terror. It therefore was able to hold the proletariat In check for a long while and inflicted cruel losses on its ranks. In their districts the workers armed themselves as best they could. They came often to battle, on their own initiative. They were short of arms, short of ammunition. When they had cannon, there were no shells. When there were shells, the sights on the guns were all wrong. Communications were appalling. Reconnaissance hardly existed. ‘We fought very badly,’ said Muralov (who led the Red forces), ‘we were carried along by the elements.’ There was no united command, and the Whites had the initiative; at times their occupation of strategic points compensated for their numerical weakness.

The enthusiasm of the militants was undoubtedly admirable: equipped with good organization it would have been miraculous. Enthusiasm on its own could not prevent a long, perilous and costly battle. The MRC was set up on the 25th, much too late, and then was prone to vacillation. It conducted quite unnecessary parleys with the S-Rs and Mensheviks, made the mistake of signing an armistice on the 29th just as the Reds were about to capture the telephone exchange, and once the counter-revolutionaries were vanquished displayed a deplorable magnanimity towards them.

In our opinion, the insurrections at Petrograd and Moscow were different types of movement. The Moscow insurrection is related – very distantly, we must add – to the more backward type of proletarian rising whose model instance is the revolt of the workers in Paris in June 1848, consciously provoked by the bourgeoisie’s economic policies. Provocation played a considerable part in the events at Moscow: the revolt was a response to it, and often became outmanoeuvred. The enemy, on the other hand, was all out for a massacre. The Petrograd insurrection, by contrast, is the first practical example of a new type of armed uprising which was later followed in the Hamburg insurrection of 1923. [30] Here, the conspiracy of a large party is co-ordinated with the action of the masses; both are launched at a selected moment after a de-tailed preparation; the element of the unforeseen is reduced to a minimum; the forces in battle are deployed with maximum economy. At Hamburg, the defeat – which was actually much more of a retreat [31] – entailed only slight losses. As a rule, of course, defeats are very costly.

The contrast between the Petrograd and the Moscow events demonstrates the enormous superiority, under equivalent conditions, of efficiently organized actions over movements in which spontaneity predominates. In the light of these experiences, the preconditions for a proletarian victory can be reduced to the following elementary rules of the military art: maximum of organization and energy in action; and the placing of superior forces at the decisive moment at the decisive points.


[1] Speech of Comrade Bukharin at the Commemorative Evening in 1921, in Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No. 10, 1922. After relating this incident, Bukharin concludes, ‘We could have seized power in Petrograd even at this time. We decided not to do so, since we had to depend on winning decisive victories in the provinces as well.’

[2] I. Flerovsky, Kronstadt in the October Revolution, in Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, ibid.

[3] L.D. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution (London 1918) [included as The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk in The Essential Trotsky (London 1963)].

[4] Victor Serge, Lenine 1917 (Paris, 1923), p. 55.

[5] [V.P. Nogin: People’s Commissar in the first Soviet government; supporter of a broad coalition with the Mensheviks. Died in 1924.]

[6] Serge, op. cit., p. 45.

[7] K. Grasis, October in Kazan, Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No. 10 (33), 1924.

[8] [The Maximalist party was a small direct-action group which had split from the Socialist-Revolutionary party to engage in spectacular acts of terrorism against the Tsarist régime.]

[9] V. Bonch-Bruyevich, From July to October, in Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No. 10, 1922. The author of this article was one of Lenin’s close associates.

[10] My sources for these facts are the ‘reminiscences of the fighters of October’ published by Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya in 1922, and a little book Moscow in October 1917 (Moskva v Oktyabre 1917) [N. Ovsyannikov, ed.] (Moscow 1919). The argument of the comrades who opposed the insurrection is given and magisterially refuted in Lenin’s Letter to the Comrades of 16–17 October 1917 (Collected Works (London 1969), Vol. 26, pp. 195–215).

[11] [In Italy, during 1920, over two million workers came out on strike in a wave of militant action in the major industrial cities, culminating in the factory occupations of the spring and autumn; throughout the south, and especially in Sicily, peasants seized the estates. No political leadership of the movement came from the Italian Socialist party, and the decline of the revolutionary wave heralded the consolidation of Mussolini’s fascist squads. (See Angelo Tasca (A. Rossi), Naissance du Fascisme (Paris 1967), pp. 95–107, 438–40). Serge’s invocation of the German ‘missed opportunity’ of 1923 is much less apt: revolutionary militancy in the German working class was very localized and sporadic even in this critical year, and the failure of the revolution to materialize cannot be laid to the account of the KPD and Comintern tacticians, clumsy as these were. Werner T. Angress’s Still-Born Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921–23 (Princeton 1963), provides a full and fair analysis of this complex battleground. For the variations of Serge’s own attitude to the 1923 German events, see below, note 30.]

[12] Numerous documents which have been recently included in Volume 21 of Lenin’s Collected Works (new Russian edition) seem to indicate that a substantial Right-wing trend was taking shape within the party, to which it would have liked to assign the role of a powerful proletarian Opposition inside a parliamentary democracy. Not only did this tendency fail to comprehend that the question of democracy was an irrelevancy (Russia having only the choice between two dictatorships); it was also the victim of the most dangerous illusions conceivable.

[13] ‘The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment, considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do’ (Karl Marx in The Holy Family).

[14] The personal predictions of Lenin in 1914–15 (in Against the Stream) and on the Russian revolution in September 1917 (Letters from Afar) should be compared with President Wilson’s hopes in 1918–19: the illusions of Wilsonism formed a powerful contribution to the victory of the Allies, in which they served political ends diametrically opposed to those of their propounder. Lenin’s clear vision and effective action can be compared also with the blindness and ineffectuality of the statesmen of the modern bourgeoisie: the leaders of German imperialism in relation to the catastrophe of Germany; Clemenceau and the Versailles treaty; Poincaré and Cuno and the Ruhr conflict of 1923. One must at once distinguish between the intentions of President Wilson who advocated national self-determination, freedom of the seas and the League of Nations, and the social role played by Wilsonism, the final ideology of the Allied war; personally Wilson appears not to have wanted to produce the result that he actually achieved, i.e. that of serving the cause of one imperialist coalition against another.

[15] A satisfactory French translation of these works, unfortunately with-out explanatory notes or a historical introduction, has been published by La Librairie de l’Humanité.I have provided a detailed analysis of these writings of Lenin in Lenine 1917.

[16] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, pp. 22–3.

[17] [From the article Insurrection, in the New York Daily Tribune of 18 September 1852, signed by Marx but actually written by Engels (and later published in the collection Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution).]

[18] Trotsky was still interned in a concentration camp at Amherst in Canada at the time when Lenin arrived in Russia, and only reached Petrograd in the first days of May. The articles on the Russian revolution that he wrote in America strike a note similar to those by Lenin in the same period. After 5–6 May, he was in close contact for common activities with the editorial board of Pravda and the Bolshevik Central Committee. At this time he was a member of the so-called ‘Inter-District’ organization of Social-Democrats, which also included Volodarsky, Lunacharsky, Manuilsky, Karakhan, Yoffe and Uritsky, and which fused with the Bolshevik party in July 1917. Trotsky’addressed the Petrograd Soviet for the first time on 5 (18) May, the day after his arrival from America. He urged it first, to challenge the bourgeoisie; second, to put its own leaders under control; third, to have confidence in its own revolutionary strength. ‘I believe’, he concluded, ‘that the next action on our agenda will place power in the hands of the Soviets.’

[19] An engineering worker from the Bolshevik emigration, Shlyapnikov undertook illegal activity in Petrograd in the last months of Tsarism, on which he has written some interesting memoirs: The Eve of 1917 (Kanun Semnadtsatogo Goda) (Moscow, no date). He became one of the organizers of the Russian Metal Workers’ Union and then, in October 1917, Commissar for Labour. In 1921 he was one of the leaders of the ‘Workers’ Opposition’ in the Russian Communist party. [He capitulated to Stalin in 1926, was expelled from the party in 1933, was sent to an ‘isolator’ in 1935, and died obscurely in 1943.]

[20] G. Georgievsky, Essay on the History of the Red Guard (Ocherki po Istorii Krasnoi Gvardii) (Moscow 1919).

[21] The way the insurrection was carried out reconciled the two theses. It took place on the day of the Soviet Congress, but began in the early morning; the Congress began its deliberations only in the evening, while the shooting could still be heard going on.

Lenin proved mistaken on another point at this time. In the early days of October he wrote to the Central Committee that ‘Victory is certain in Moscow: nobody will resist us there. At Petrograd we can afford to wait: it is not necessary to begin with Petrograd.’ In fact, of course, the victory was safe in Petrograd, where the insurrection had a painless triumph, while in Moscow it encountered fierce resistance. [Serge’s comments at this point relate to the controversies in Russian party history, from 1924 onwards, which enrolled the differences between Lenin and Trotsky (on the timing of the insurrection) into the current polemic against Trotsky. Trotsky (in his book Sur Lenine in 1924) had justified his own timing of 1917 as against Lenin’s; this in turn was made much of by Stalin (in his speech Trotskyism or Leninism? of November that year). Serge is here content to state the legitimacy both of Trotsky’s and Lenin’s position on the insurrection.]

[22] [Cavaignac and Galliffet: French generals who were the military saviours of the bourgeoisie against the workers, in 1848 and 1871 respectively.]

[23] [Actually a mistaken reference by Serge; the witness for the scene was N.N. Sukhanov: The Russian Revolution (London 1955), pp. 584–591.

[24] Flerovsky, op. cit.

[25] N. Podvoisky, a member of the Bolshevik party for many years, was one of the founders of the party’s military organization. Later he became People’s Commissar for War of the Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics, then of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Subsequently, he devoted himself to the tasks of military training among youth and physical education generally. [Disappeared from public view in the 1930s; died in 1948.]

Antonov-Ovseyenko, a former officer and journalist who had been in political emigration, was active in Paris during the war in producing the internationalist journals, Golos, Nashe Slovo and Nachalo. He joined the Bolsheviks in 1917 and became a Red Army leader in the civil war. He headed the Political Directorate of the Red Army in 1923, and then the Soviet mission to Czechoslovakia. [A lapsed Trotskyist, Antonov-Ovseyenko steered the GPU terror against revolutionary dissidents in the Spanish civil war, was recalled to Moscow and shot without public trial in 1938.] Lashevich, an old Bolshevik militant, later became a member of the Revolutionary War Council in Petrograd (1919–20) and in Siberia (after the fall of Kolchak). He became Commissar for War in 1926 and died in 1928. [Lashevich had been a supporter of the Zinoviev opposition of 1925–7, and capitulated with it; his death was apparently by suicide.]

[26] S. Mstislavsky, Five Days (Pyat Dnei) (Berlin, 1922).

[27] A. Schlichter, Memorable Days in Moscow, Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No. 10, 1922; Boris Voline, The Moscow Soviet before October, ibid.

[28] N. Norov, On the Eve, in N. Ovsyannikov (ed.), Moscow in October 1917 (Moskva v Oktyabre 1917) (Moscow, 1919). See also Victor Serge, La Revolution d’Octobre à Moscou, Bulletin Communiste, 1 September 1921.

[29] Ilya Noskov, The Kremlin Massacre, in Ovsyannikov, op. cit.

[30] [This characterization of the 1923 Hamburg rising misses any consideration of its most important defects: firstly, the isolation of the insurrection itself from any concurrent action in the rest of Germany (since Hamburg was the only town to fail to receive the order calling off a nationwide rising originally projected by the German Communists); secondly, the isolation of the few hundred Communist shock-troops in the city from the rest of the working class. Victor Serge’s maturer reflections in Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London, 1967), pp. 171–2, exhibit this double isolation quite clearly, and the eulogy of the ‘new type’ of revolution here simply seems to be making the best of a job for which Serge himself, as a Comintern emissary in Germany in the early 1920s, may well have shared some responsibility.]

[31] Larissa Reissner, Hamburg auf den Barrikaden (Berlin, 1925).

Last updated on: 21 January 2016