Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume Three: The Triumph of the Soviets

Chapter 41
The Military-Revolutionary Committee

In spite of the change of mood beginning toward the end of July, the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks dominated the reorganised Petrograd garrison all through August. The proletariat was disarmed; the Red Guard had kept only a few thousand rifles. In those circumstances, notwithstanding the fact that the masses were again coming over to the Bolsheviks, an insurrection might end in cruel defeat.

The situation steadily changed, however, through September. After the revolt of the generals the Compromisers swiftly lost their following in the garrison. Distrust of the Bolshevik was replaced by sympathy, or at the worst by a watchful neutrality. But the sympathy was not active. The garrison remained in a political sense extremely shaky and – as muzhiks are – suspicious. Aren’t the Bolsheviks going to deceive us? Will they really give us peace and land? The majority of the soldiers still had no idea of fighting for these aims under the banner of the Bolsheviks. And since there remained in the garrison an almost completely unabsorbed minority hostile to the Bolsheviks – five or six thousand junkers, three Cossack regiments, a bicycle battalion and an armoured car division – the outcome of a conflict in September seemed doubtful. To help things along, however, the course of events brought one more object lesson in which the fate of the Petrograd soldiers was shown to be inseparably bound up with the fate of the revolution and the Bolsheviks.

The right to control bodies of armed men is a fundamental right of the state power. The first Provisional Government, wished upon the people by the Executive Committee, gave an obligation not to disarm and not to remove from Petrograd those military units which had taken part in the February overturn was the formal beginning of a military dualism inseparable in essence from the double sovereignty. The major political disturbances of the succeeding months – the April demonstration, the July days. the preparation of the Kornilov insurrection and its liquidation – each one inevitably ran into – the question of the subordination of the Petrograd garrison. But conflicts between the government and the Compromisers upon this theme were, after all, a family matter, and ended amicably. With the Bolshevisation of the garrison things took a different turn. The soldiers themselves now began to recall that obligation given by the government to the Executive Committee in March and treacherously broken by them. On September 8 the soldiers’ section of the Soviet put forward a demand that the regiments transferred to the front in connection with the July events be returned to Petrograd. This while the members of the Coalition were tearing their hair about how to get rid of the remaining regiments.

In a number of provincial cities things stood about the same way as in the capital. During July and August the local garrison underwent a patriotic reconstruction; during August and September the reconstructed garrisons underwent a process of Bolshevisation. It was then necessary to begin over from the beginning – that is, once more undertake transfers and reconstructions. In preparing its blow against Petrograd the government began with the provinces. Its political motives were carefully concealed under pretexts of strategy. On September 27 a joint session of the soviets of Reval – that of the city and the fortress – adopted on the question of transfers the following resolution: To consider a regrouping of forces admissible only when agreed to in advance by the corresponding soviets. The leaders of the Vladimir Soviet inquired of Moscow whether they should obey an order of Kerensky transferring the whole garrison. The Moscow regional bureau of the Bolsheviks observed that “orders of this kind are becoming systematic in relation to the revolutionary-minded garrisons.” Before surrendering all its rights, the Provisional Government was trying to get hold of the fundamental right of every government – the right to dispose of armed bodies of men.

The reorganisation of the Petrograd garrison was becoming all the more urgent because the coming Congress of Soviets was destined to carry to a decision one way or other the struggle for power. The bourgeois press, led by the Kadet organ Rech, was asserting every morning that we must not “let the Bolsheviks choose the moment for a declaration of civil war.” That meant: We must strike a timely blow at the Bolsheviks. The attempt at a preliminary change of the correlation of forces in the garrison flowed inevitably from this premise. Arguments from strategic considerations looked sufficiently impressive after the fall of Riga and the loss of the Moon-sund Islands. District headquarters issued an order for the reorganisation of the Petrograd units in preparation for an offensive. At the same time, upon the initiative of the Compromisers, the matter was brought up in the soldiers’ section of the Soviet. Here the plan of the enemy was not bad: presenting a peremptory strategic demand to the Soviet to snatch their military support from under the feet of the Bolsheviks, or in case the Soviet resisted, to provoke a sharp conflict between the Petrograd garrison and the front, which was in need of supplementary forces and replacements.

The leaders of the Soviet, quite well aware of the trap which had been set for them, made up their minds to feel out the ground carefully before taking any irrevocable step. A flat refusal to fulfil the order was possible only if they were sure that the motives of the refusal would be correctly understood by the front. Otherwise it might be more advantageous to carry out, by agreement with the trenches, a replacement of certain units of the garrison with revolutionary units from the front which were In need of rest. It was in this latter sense, as we have shown above, that the Reval Soviet had already spoken.

The soldiers approached the question more brusquely. Take the offensive at the front now, in the middle of autumn? Reconcile themselves to a new winter campaign? No, they simply had no room in their heads for that idea. The patriotic press immediately opened fire on the garrison: the Petrograd regiments, grown fat in idleness, are betraying the front. The workers took the side of the soldiers. The Putilov men were the first to protest against the transfer of the regiments. From that time on the question was never absent from the order of the day either in barrack or factory. This drew together the two sections of the Soviet. The regiments began to support most heartily the demand that the workers be armed.

Attempting to kindle the patriotism of the masses by threatening the loss of Petrograd, the Compromisers introduced into the Soviet on October 9 a motion to create a “Committee of Revolutionary Defence.” whose task should be to take part in the defence of the capital with the active co-operation of the workers. While refusing to assume responsibility for “the so-called strategy of the Provisional Government and in particular the removal of troops from Petrograd,” the Soviet nevertheless had made no haste to express itself upon the substance of the order removing the soldiers, but had decided to test its motives and the facts upon which it was based. The Mensheviks had raised a protest: It is not permissible to interfere in the operative orders of the commanding staff. But it was only a month and a half since they had talked the same way about the conspiratorial orders of Kornilov, and they were reminder of this. In order to test the question whether the removal of the troops was dictated by military or political considerations, competent body was needed. To the extreme surprise of the Compromisers the Bolsheviks accepted the idea of a “Committee of Defence.” This committee should be the one to gather all data relating to the defence of the capital. That was an important step. Having snatched this dangerous weapon from the hands of the enemy, the Soviet remained in a position to turn the decision about removing the troops this way or that according to circumstances – but in any case against the government and the Compromisers.

The Bolsheviks quite naturally seized upon this Menshevik project of a military committee, for there had been conversations often enough in their own ranks about the necessity of creating in good season an authoritative Soviet committee to lead the coming insurrection. In the Military Organisation of the party they had even drawn up plans for such a body. The one difficulty they had not yet got over was that of reconciling an instrument of insurrection with an elective and openly functioning Soviet, upon whose benches, moreover, sat representatives of the hostile parties. The patriotic proposal of the Mensheviks, therefore, came up most appropriately, and came up just in time to assist in the creation of a revolutionary headquarters – a body soon to be renamed “Military Revolutionary Committee” and to become the chief lever of the revolution.

Two years after the events described above, the author of this book wrote in an article dedicated to the October revolution: “As soon as the order for the removal of the troops was communicated by Headquarters to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet ... it became clear that this question in its further development would have decisive political significance.” The idea of an insurrection began to take form from that moment. It was no longer necessary to invent a Soviet body. The real aim of the future committee was unequivocally brought out when in the same session Trotsky concluded his report On the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from the Pre-Parliament with the exclamation: “Long live the direct and open struggle for a revolutionary power throughout the country!” That was a translation into the language of soviet legality of the slogan: “Long live the armed insurrection!”

On the very next day, the 10th, the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, adopted in secret session the resolution of Lenin presenting armed insurrection as the practical task of the coming days. From that moment the party assumed a clear and imperative fighting formation. The Committee of Defence was included in its plans for a direct struggle for power.

The government and its allies surrounded the garrison with concentric circles. On the 11th the commander of the Northern front, General Cheremissov, reported to the War Minister a demand of the army committees that the tired-out front units be replaced by Petrograd units from the rear. In this instance Headquarters was merely a transmitting mechanism between the Compromisers in the army committees and their Petrograd leaders, who were striving to create a broad cover for the plans of Kerensky. The Coalition press accompanied this encircling operation with a symphony of patriotic ravings. Daily meetings of the regiments and factories demonstrated, however, that this music of the ruling spheres was not making the slightest impression upon the lower ranks. On the 12th, a mass meeting of the workers of one of the most revolutionary factories of the capital (the Old Parviainen) made the following answer to the attacks of the bourgeoisie: “We declare that we will go into the street when we deem it advisable. We are not afraid of the approaching struggle, and we confidently believe that we will come off victorious.”

In creating a commission to draw up regulations for the “Committee of Defence,” the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet designated for the future military body such tasks as the following: To get in touch with the Northern front and with the headquarters of the Petrograd district, with Centrobalt and the regional soviet of Finland, in order to ascertain the military situation and take the necessary measures: to take a census of the personal composition of the garrison of Petrograd and its environs, also of the ammunition and military supplies; to take measures for the preservation of discipline in the soldier and worker masses. The formula were all-inclusive and at the same time ambiguous: they almost all balanced on a fine line between defence of the capital and armed insurrection. However, these two tasks, heretofore mutually exclusive, were now in actual fact growing into one. Having seized the power, the Soviet would be compelled to undertake the military defence of Petrograd. The element of defence-camouflage was not, therefore, violently dragged in, but flowed to some extent from the conditions preceding the insurrection.

With this same purpose of camouflage a Social Revolutionary and not a Bolshevik was placed at the head of the commission on the “Committee of Defence.” This was a young and modest intendant, Lazimir, one of those Left Social Revolutionaries who were already travelling with the Bolsheviks before the insurrection – although, to be sure, not always foreseeing whither the course would lead. Lazimir’s preliminary rough draft was edited by Trotsky in two directions: the practical plans relating to the conquest of the garrison were more sharply defined, the general revolutionary goal was still more glossed over. As ratified by the Executive Committee against the protest of two Mensheviks, the draft included in the staff of the Military Revolutionary Committee the præsidiums of the Soviet and of the soldiers’ section, representatives of the fleet, of the regional committee of Finland, of the railroad unions, of the factory committees, the trade unions, the party military organisations, the Red Guard, etc. The organisational basis was the same as in many other cases, but the personal composition of the committee was determined by its new tasks. It was assumed that the organisations would send representatives familiar with military affairs or standing near to the garrison. The character of an organ should be conditioned by its function.

Another new formation of this period was no less important. Under the direction of the Military Revolutionary Committee there was created a Permanent Conference of the Garrison. The soldiers’ section represented the garrison politically, the deputies being elected under the party symbols. The Garrison Conference, however, was to consist of the regimental committees which guided the daily lives of their units and thus constituted a more immediate practical “guild” representation. The analogy between the regimental and the factory committees is obvious. Through the mediation of the workers’ section of the Soviet the Bolsheviks were able upon big political questions to rely confidently upon the workers. But in order to become masters in the factories it had been necessary to carry the factory and shop committees. The composition of the soldiers’ section guaranteed to the Bolsheviks the political sympathy of the majority of the garrison. But in order to get the practical disposal of the military units it was necessary to rely directly on the regimental committees. This explains why in the period preceding the insurrection the Garrison Conference naturally crowded out the soldiers’ section and moved to the centre of the stage. The more prominent deputies in the section were also, by the way, members of the Conference.

In an article written not long before these days – The Crisis is Ripe – Lenin had reproachfully asked: “What has the party done in the matter of ascertaining the attitude of the troops, etc. ...?” Notwithstanding the devoted work of the Military Organisation, Lenin’s reproach was just. A strictly military examination of the forces and materials was difficult for the party to achieve: the habit of mind was lacking and the approach. This situation changed the moment the Garrison Conference came on the scene. Henceforth a living panorama of the garrison – not only of the capital but also of the military ring surrounding it – passed before the eyes of the leaders.

On the 12th the Executive Committee took up the regulations drafted by Lazimir’s commission. In spite of the session’s being secret the debate was carried on to a certain extent in equivocal language. “Here they said one thing and meant another,” writes Sukhanov not unjustly. The regulations provided for the establishment under the Committee of departments of defence, supplies, communications, intelligence, etc.: this was a headquarters or counter-quarters. They declared it to be the aim of the Conference to raise the fighting capacity of the garrison: that was entirely true, but a fighting capacity may be applied in different ways. The Mensheviks observed with helpless indignation that an idea advanced by them for patriotic purposes was being converted into a screen for the preparation of an insurrection. The camouflage was by no means impenetrable – everybody understood what the talk was about – but at the same time it could not be broken through. Had not the Compromisers themselves behaved in exactly the same way in the past, grouping the garrison around themselves at critical moments and creating sovereign bodies parallel with those of the government? The Bolsheviks were merely following the traditions, so to speak, of the dual power. But they were bringing a new content into these old forms. What had formerly served the purpose of compromise was now leading to civil war. The Mensheviks demanded that it be placed in the record that they were against the undertaking as a whole. This platonic request was granted.

On the next day the question of the Military Revolutionary Committee and the Garrison Conference was taken up by the soldiers’ section, which only a little while before had constituted the lifeguard of the Compromisers. The chief place in this very significant session was rightly occupied by the president of the Centrobalt, the sailor Dybenko, a black-bearded giant, a man who never had to look in his pocket for a word. The speech of this Helsingfors guest crashed into the stagnant atmosphere of the garrison like a keen and fresh sea wind. Dybenko told about the final break of the fleet with the government and their new attitudes to the command. Before the latest naval operations began, he said, the admiral addressed a question to the Congress of Sailors then sitting: Will they carry out military orders? We answered: “We will – under supervision from our side. But ... if we see that the fleet is threatened with destruction, the commanding staff will be the first to hang from the mast-head.” To the Petrograd garrison this was a new language. Even in the fleet it had come into use only in the last few days. It was the language of insurrection. The little group of Mensheviks grumbled distractedly in a corner. The præsidium looked out with some alarm upon that compact mass of grey soldier coats. Not one protesting voice from their ranks! Eyes burned like coals in their excited faces. A spirit of daring was in the air.

In conclusion, stimulated by the universal sympathy, Dybenko confidently exclaimed: “They talk about the need of bringing out the Petrograd garrison for the defence of the approaches to Petrograd and of Reval in particular. Don’t believe a word of it. We will defend Reval ourselves. Stay here and defend the interests of the revolution ... When we need your support we will say so ourselves, and I am confident that you will support us.” This challenge, which exactly matched the mood of the soldiers, called out a veritable whirlwind of sincere enthusiasm in which the protests of a few individual Mensheviks were completely drowned. The question of removing the regiments was settled from that moment.

The regulations proposed by Lazimir were adopted by a majority of 283 votes against 1, with 23 abstaining. These figures, unexpected even to the Bolsheviks, gave a measure of the pressure of the revolutionary masses. The vote meant that the soldiers’ section had openly and officially transferred the administration of the garrison from headquarters to the Military Revolutionary Committee. The coming days would show that this was no mere gesture.

On that same day the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet made public the creation under its supervision of a special department of the Red Guard. The matter of arming the workers, neglected under the Compromisers and even obstructed by them, had become one of the most important tasks of the Bolshevik Soviet. The suspicious attitude of the soldiers toward the Red Guard was already far in the past. On the contrary, almost all the resolutions of the regiments contained a demand for the arming of the workers. From now on the Red Guard and the garrison stand side by side. Soon they will be still more closely united by a common submission to the Military Revolutionary Committee.

The government was worried. On the morning of the 14th, a conference of the ministers in Kerensky’s office ratified the measures undertaken by headquarters against the “coming-out” under preparation. The rulers were guessing: Will it stop this time at an armed demonstration or will it go to the point of insurrection? The commander of the district said to the representatives of the press: “In any case we are ready.” Those doomed to death not infrequently experience an afflux of life force just before the end.

At a joint session of the Executive Committees, Dan, imitating the June intonations of Tseretelli, who had now taken refuge in the Caucasus, demanded of the Bolsheviks an answer to the question: Do they intend to come out, and if they do, when? From the answer of Riazanov, the Menshevik Bogdanov drew the not unjustified conclusion that the Bolsheviks were preparing an insurrection and would stand at the head of it. The Menshevik paper wrote: “And the Bolsheviks are evidently relying in their plans for a coming ‘seizure of power’ on the garrison’s staying here.” But in this remark the phrase “seizure of power” was in quotation marks. The Compromisers still did not seriously believe in the danger. They did not fear the victory of the Bolsheviks so much as the triumph of the counter-revolution in consequence of new civil war conflicts.

Having undertaken to arm the workers, the Soviet had to find its way to the weapons. This did not happen all at once. Here too each practical step forward was suggested by the masses. It was only necessary to listen attentively to their suggestions. Four years after the event, Trotsky, in an evening devoted to recollections of the October revolution, told the following story: “When a delegation from the workers came to me and said they needed weapons, I answered: ‘But the arsenals, you see, are not in our hands.’ They answered: ‘We have been to the Sestroretsk Arms Factory.’ ‘Well, and what about it?’ ‘They said that if the Soviet ordered they would deliver.’ I gave an order for five thousand rifles, and they got them the same day. That was the first experiment.” The hostile press immediately raised a cry against this delivery of weapons by a government factory upon the order of a person indicted for state treason, and only released from prison on bail. The government kept still, but the highest organ of the democracy came forward with a strict command. Weapons were to be given to nobody without its strict permission – the permission of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets. It might seem that on the question of delivering weapons Dan and Gotz were as little in a position to forbid, as Trotsky to permit or give orders. The factories and arsenals were supposed to be under government administration. But ignoring the official authorities at all serious moments had become a tradition with the Central Executive Committee, and had permanently entered into the customs of the government itself, corresponding as it did to the nature of things. The violation of tradition and custom came, however, from another direction. Having ceased to distinguish the thunderings of the Central Executive Committee from the lightnings of Kerensky, the workers and soldiers ignored them both.

It was more convenient to demand the transfer of the Petrograd regiments in the name of the front than in the name of the chancelleries at the rear. For these reasons Kerensky placed the Petrograd garrison under the commander-in-chief of the Northern front, Cheremissov. While excluding the capital in its military aspect from his own administration as the head of the government, Kerensky took comfort in the thought that he would subject it to himself as commander-in-chief of the army. In his turn General Cheremissov, who was going to be a very hard nut to crack, sought help from the commissars and committee-men. With their common labours a plan of future activities was drawn up. On the 7th the headquarters at the front, together with the army organisations, was to summon representatives of the Petrograd Soviet to Pskov in order in the presence of the trenches to present them with a brusque demand.

There was nothing for the Petrograd Soviet to do but accept the challenge. The delegation of a score or so appointed at the session of the 16th – about half members of the Soviet and half representatives of the regiments – was headed by the president of the Workers’ Section, Feodorov, and leaders of the Soldiers’ Section and the Military Organisation of the Bolsheviks – Lashevich, Sadovsky, Mekhonoshin, Dashkevich and others. A few left Social Revolutionaries and Menshevik-Internationalists, included in the delegation, promised to defend the policy of the Soviet. At a conference of the delegates held before their departure the draft of a declaration proposed by Sverdlov was adopted.

The same session of the Soviet took up the regulations of the Military Revolutionary Committee. This institution had barely come into existence when it assumed in the eyes of the enemy an aspect growing every day more hateful. “The Bolsheviks make no answer,” cried an orator of the opposition, “to the direct question: Are they preparing an attack? This is either cowardice or lack of confidence in their forces.” The meeting greeted this remark with hearty laughter: the representative of the government party was demanding that the party of insurrection open the secrets of its heart to him. The new committee, continued the orator, is nothing else but “a revolutionary headquarters for the seizure of power.” They, the Mensheviks would not enter it. “How many are there of you?” cried a voice from the benches: there were indeed only a few Mensheviks in the Soviet, fifty altogether. But nevertheless it seemed authoritatively known to them that “the masses are not in favour of coming out.” In his reply Trotsky did not deny that the Bolsheviks were preparing for a seizure of power: “We make no secret of that.” But at present, he said, that is not the question. The government has demanded the removal of the revolutionary troops from Petrograd and to that “we have to answer yes or no.” The regulations drafted by Lazimir were adopted by an overwhelming majority. The president proposed to the Military Revolutionary Committee to begin work on the following day. Thus one more forward step was taken.

The commander of the district, Polkovnikov, had that day once more reported to the government that an action was under preparation by the Bolsheviks. The report was couched in bold language: the garrison as a whole is on the side of the government; the officers’ schools have received an order to be ready. In an appeal to the population Polkovnikov promised in case of necessity to adopt “the most extreme measures.” The burgomaster, Schreider, a Social Revolutionary, added a prayer on his part that “no disorders shall be instigated so that we may avoid actual famine in the capital.” Threatening and adjuring, making bold and making timid, the press meanwhile was rising to a higher and higher note.

To impress the imagination of delegates from the Petrograd Soviet, a military-theatrical setting was arranged for the reception in Pskov. In the office of headquarters around tables covered with imposing maps stood notable generals, high commissars, with Voitinsky at their head, and representatives of the army committees. The chiefs of the departments read reports of the military situation on land and sea. All the reports came to one and the same conclusion: It is necessary to call out the Petrograd garrison immediately for the defence of the approaches to the capital. The commissars and committee-men indignantly refuted all suspicions in regard to hidden political motives: the whole operation, they declared, has been dictated by strategic necessity. The delegates had no direct proofs to the contrary: in this kind of business evidence does not grow on every bush. But the whole situation was a refutation. The front had no lack of men. What it lacked was willingness to fight. The mood of the Petrograd garrison was by no means such as to reinforce a front so shaken. Moreover the lessons of the Kornilov days were still in the memories of all. Thoroughly convinced of their correctness, the delegation easily resisted the assault of headquarters, and returned to Petrograd more unanimous than when they had left.

Those direct proofs which the participants at that time lacked are now at the disposal of the historian. The secret military correspondence proves that it was not the front which had demanded the Petrograd regiments, but that Kerensky had imposed them upon the front. To a telegram from his War Minister, the commander-in-chief of the Northern front answered on the direct wire: “Secret. 17. X. The initiative for sending the troops of the Petrograd garrison to the front was yours and not mine ... When it became clear that the troops of the Petrograd garrison did not want to go to the front, that is, that they are not capable of fighting, I then in a private conversation with your officer-representative said that ... we have already plenty of such troops at the front; but in view of the desire expressed by you to send them to the front, I did not refuse them and I do not refuse them now, if you, as before, consider their transfer from Petrograd necessary.” The semi-bellicose tone of this telegram is explained by the fact that Cheremissov, a general with a taste for high politics, having been considered “Red” while in the czar’s army, and having afterward become, according to Miliukov’s expression, “the favourite of the revolutionary democracy,” had evidently come to the conclusion that it would be better to draw apart in good season from the government and its conflict with the Bolsheviks. The conduct of Cheremissov during the days of the revolution wholly confirms this assumption.

The struggle about the garrison interwove with the struggle about the Soviet Congress. Only four or five days remained before the date originally designated. The “coming-out” was expected in connection with the Congress. It was assumed that as in the July Days the movement would develop on the type of an armed mass demonstration with street fighting. The right Menshevik Potressov, obviously relying upon data supplied by the Intelligence Service, or by the French War Mission – always bold in the manufacture of forged documents – expounded in the bourgeois press the plan of a Bolshevik action which was to take place on the night of October 17. The ingenious authors of the plan did not forget to foretell that at one of the gates of the city the Bolsheviks were to pick up the “dark elements.” The soldiers of the Guard regiments were as good at laughing as the gods of Homer. The white pillars and chandeliers of Smolny shook with uproarious volleys when Potressov’s article was read at a meeting of the Soviet. But the all-wise government, unable as ever to see what was taking place before its eyes, took serious fright at this awkward forgery, and hastily assembled at two o’clock in the morning in order to hold off these “dark elements.” After renewed conferences between Kerensky and the military authorities the necessary measures were taken. The guards of the Winter Palace and the State Bank were reinforced; two training schools were called in from Oranienbaum, and even an armoured train from the Rumanian front. “At the last moment,” writes Miliukov, “the Bolsheviks revoked their preparations. Why they did this is not clear.” Even several years after the event the learned historian still prefers to believe an invention which contained its own refutation.

The authorities directed the militia to investigate the environs of the city to see if they could find signs of any preparation for a coming-out. The reports of the militia were a combination of live observations with police stupidity. In the Alexandro-Nevsky section, which contains a number of big factories, the investigators found complete tranquillity. In the Vyborg district the necessity of overthrowing the government was being openly preached, but “externally” all was quiet. In the Vassilie-Ostrov district the mood was high, but here too “external” signs of an action were not to be observed. On the Narva side a redoubled agitation in favour of action was going on, but it was impossible to get an answer from anybody to the question, just when. Either the day and hour were being kept strictly secret, or they were really unknown to anybody. Decision: to reinforce the patrols in the suburbs and have the commissars of the militia inspect the sentry posts more frequently.

Certain correspondence in the Moscow liberal press is not a bad supplement to the reports of the militia: “In the suburbs, at the Petersburg factories, Nevsky, Obukhovsky and Putilov, Bolshevik agitation in favour of a coming-out is in progress everywhere. The workers are in a state to start moving at any moment. During recent days there has been observed in Petrograd an unheard of influx of deserters ... At the Warsaw station you can’t get through because of the soldiers with their suspicious looks, their burning eyes in excited faces ... There is information of the presence in Petrograd of whole gangs of thieves who have caught the smell of their prey. The dark forces are being organised, and the dens and lunch-rooms are brim full of them ...” Philistine fright and police rumour here interweave with certain amount of austere fact. In approaching its climax the revolutionary cries stirred up the social deeps to the very bottom. Deserters and robber-gangs and the dens of iniquity did actually all rise at the rumble of the approaching earthquake. The leaders of society gazed with physical horror at the unleashed forces of their own régime, at its ulcers and vices. The revolution had not created but only uncovered them.

At the headquarters of a corps in Dvinsk in those days, Baron Budberg, a man already known to us, a bilious reactionary, but not wanting a gift of observation and his own kind of penetration, wrote: “The Kadets, the Kadetoids, the Octobrists, and the many-coloured revolutionists of the ancient and of the March formation, feel their end approaching and chirp and chatter on all sides, reminding one of the Mussulman who tried to stop an eclipse of the moon with a rattle.”

The Garrison Conference was first called together on the 18th. The telephonogram sent to the military units told them to refrain from actions on their own initiative, and fulfil only those orders of headquarters which should be countersigned by the Soldiers’ Sections. In this the Soviet was making a decisive and open attempt to take control of the garrison. The telephonogram was in essence nothing else than a summons to overthrow the existing authorities. But it could be interpreted if one wished, as a peaceful act of replacing the Compromisers with Bolsheviks in the mechanic of the dual power. Practically this came to the same thing, but the more flexible interpretation left room for illusions. The præsidium of the Central Executive Committee, considering itself the master of Smolny, made an attempt to stop the despatch of the telephonogram. It only compromised itself once more. The assembly of representatives of the regimental and company committees of Petrograd and the environs occurred at the designated hour, and turned out to be extraordinarily large.

Thanks to the atmosphere created by the enemy, the reports of the participants in this Garrison Conference automatically concentrated upon the question of the prospective “coming-out.” There occurred a significant muster-roll, upon which the leaders would scarcely have ventured upon their own initiative. Those against the action were the military school in Peterhof and the Ninth Cavalry regiment. The squadrons of the cavalry of the Guard were inclined to neutrality. The military School in Oranienbaum would submit only to the commands of the Central Executive Committee. That exhausted the hostile or neutral voices. Those declaring their readiness to come out at a word from the Petrograd Soviet were the following: the Egersky, the Moscow, the Volynsky, the Pavolvsky, the Keksgolmsky, the Semenovsky, the Izmailovsky, the first sharpshooters and the third reserve regiments, the second Baltic crew, the electro-technical battalion and the artillery division of the Guard; the grenadier regiment would come out only at the summons of the Congress of Soviets. That was enough. The less important units followed the lead of the majority. The representatives of the Central Executive Committee, who had not long ago justly considered the Petrograd garrison the source of their power, were now almost unanimously denied the floor. In a state of impotent exasperation they left the “unauthorised” assembly, which immediately thereafter at the suggestion of the president declared: No orders are valid without the countersign of the Soviet.

That which had been preparing in the minds of the garrison during the last months, and especially weeks was now crystallising, The government turned out more insignificant than it had been possible to think. While the town was buzzing with rumours of a coming-out and of bloody battles, the Conference of regimental Committees, showing an overwhelming predominance of Bolsheviks, made both demonstrations and mass battles essentially unnecessary. The garrison was confidently advancing to the revolution, seeing it not as an insurrection, but as a realisation of the irrefutable right of the Soviet to decide the fate of the country. This movement had incomparable power, but at the same time a certain heaviness. The party was obliged to attune its activity with some skill to the political stride of the regiments, a majority of whom were awaiting a summons from the Petersburg Soviet, but some from the Congress of Soviets.

In order to ward off the danger of even a temporary interference with the development of the offensive, it was necessary to answer one question which was disturbing not only enemies but friends: Will not an insurrection spontaneously break out almost any day? In the tramways, on the streets, in the stores, there was no talk but of an expected coming-out. On the Palace Square, in front of the Winter Palace and the General Staff, long queues of officers were offering the government their services and receiving revolvers in exchange: in the hours of danger neither the revolvers nor their owners will put in one second’s appearance. The leading editorials in all the current papers were devoted to the question of the insurrection. Gorky demanded of the Bolsheviks that unless they were the “helpless playthings of the enraged multitude,” they should refute these rumours. This alarm of uncertainty penetrated even the workers’ sections, and still more the regiments. To them, too, it began to seem as though a coming-out were being prepared without them. And by whom? Why was Smolny silent? The self-contradictory situation of the Soviet as a public parliament and at the same time a revolutionary headquarters, created great difficulties in those last moments. It became impossible to remain longer silent.

“During the last days,” declared Trotsky at the end of an evening’s session of the Soviet, “the press has been full of communications, rumours, articles about an impeding action ... The decisions of the Petrograd Soviet are published and made known to everybody. The Soviet is an elective institution, and cannot have a decision which would not be known to the workers and soldiers ... I declare in the name of the Soviet that no armed actions have been settled upon by us, but if the Soviet in the course of events should be obliged to set the date for a coming-out, the workers and soldiers would come out to the last man at its summons. They say that I signed an order for five thousand rifles ... Yes, I signed it ... The Soviet will continue to organise and arm the workers’ guard.” The delegates understood: the battle was near, but without them and over their heads the signal would not be given.

However, besides a reassuring explanation, the masses had to have a clear revolutionary prospective. For this purpose the speaker united the two questions – removal of the garrison and coming Congress of Soviets. “We are in conflict with the government upon a question which may become extremely sharp ... We will not permit them ... to strip Petrograd of its revolutionary garrison.” This conflict is in its turn subordinate to another that approaches. “It is known to the bourgeoisie that the Petrograd Soviet is going to propose to the Congress of Soviets that they seize the power ... And foreseeing an inevitable battle, the bourgeois classes are trying to disarm Petrograd.” The political set-up of the revolution was first given in this speech with complete definition: We expect to seize the power, we need the garrison, and we will not give it up. “At the first attempt of the counter-revolution to break up the Congress, we will answer with a counter-attack which will be ruthless, and which we will carry through to the end.” Here, too, the announcement of a decisive political offensive was made under the formula of military defence.

Sukhanov, who turned up at this meeting with a hopeless plan to draw the Soviet into a celebration of Gorky’s fiftieth anniversary, subsequently made an apt comment on the revolutionary knot which was tied there. For Smolny, he said, the question of the garrison is a question of insurrection; for the soldiers it is a question of their own fate. “It would be difficult to imagine a more fortunate starting point for the policy of those days.” This did not prevent Sukhanov from considering the policy of the Bolsheviks as a whole ruinous. Along with Gorky and thousands of radical intellectuals he feared above all things that so-called “enraged multitude” which was with admirable deliberation developing its offensive from day to day.

The Soviet was sufficiently powerful to announce openly its programme of state revolution and even set the date. At the same time – right up to the date set by itself for the complete victory – the Soviet was powerless in thousands of great and small questions. Kerensky, politically already reduced to a zero, was still giving out decrees in the Winter Palace. Lenin, the inspirer of this incomparable movement of the masses, was hiding underground, and the Minister of Justice, Miliantovich, had renewed in those days his instructions to the district attorney to bring about Lenin’s arrest. Even in Smolny, on its own territory, the all-powerful Petrograd Soviet seemed to be living only by grace of the authorities. The administration of the building, of the cashbox, of the despatching room, the automobiles, the telephones – all was still in the hands of the Central Executive Committee which itself only hung on by the mere thread of an abstract right of succession.

Sukhanov tells how after the meeting he came out in the thick of night on Smolny Square, in black darkness with rain coming down in sheets. The whole crowd of delegates were hopelessly milling around a couple of smoking and stinking automobiles which had been assigned to the Bolshevik Soviet from the opulent garages of the Central Executive Committee. “The president, Trotsky, was also about to approach the automobile,” relates this omnipresent observer. “But after stopping and looking on for a minute he chuckled and, splashing through the puddles, disappeared in the darkness.” On the platform of the tramcar, Sukhanov ran into some unknown small-sized fellow of modest appearance with a black goatee. The unknown tried to console Sukhanov in all the discomforts of the long journey. “Who is that?” asked Sukhanov of his Bolshevik companion. “An old party worker, Sverdlov.” In less than two weeks this small man with a little black goatee will be president of the Central Executive Committee, the supreme governing power of the Soviet Republic. It may be that Sverdlov consoled his travelling companion out of a feeling of gratitude: Eight days before that in the apartment of Sukhanov – to be sure, without his knowledge – had occurred that meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee which placed the armed insurrection on the order of the day.

The next morning the Central Executive Committee made an attempt to turn back the wheel of events. The præsidium convoked a “lawful” assembly of the garrison, drawing into it also those backward committees which should long ago have been re-elected, and which had not been present the day before. This supplementary test of the garrison, while also giving something new, still more clearly confirmed yesterday’s picture. This time those opposed to the coming-out were a majority of the committees of the troops quartered in the Peter and Paul fortress, and the committees of the armoured car division. They both announced their submission to the Central Executive Committee. This information was not to be ignored.

Situated on an island washed by the Neva and its canal, between the centre of the city and two outlying districts, this fortress dominates the nearby bridges, and protects – or, if you will, lays bare – from the side of the river the approaches to the Winter Palace where the government had its seat. Although deprived of military significance in large scale operations, the fortress can speak a weighty word in a street fight. Moreover – and this, perhaps, is more important – the well-stocked Kronverksky arsenal adjoins the fortress. The workers were in need of rifles – yes, and the more revolutionary regiments, too, were almost disarmed. The importance of armoured cars in a street battle needs no explanation. On the side of the government they might cause many fruitless sacrifices; on the side of the insurrection they would shorten the road to victory. In the approaching days the Bolsheviks would have to give special attention to the fortress and the armoured car division. For the rest, the correlation of forces at this new conference turned out to be the same as on the preceding day. The attempt of the Central Executive Committee to carry its own very cautious resolution was coldly repulsed by an overwhelming majority. Not having been summoned by the Petrograd Soviet, it was noted, the conference does not consider itself empowered to adopt decisions. The Compromise leaders had themselves begged for this supplementary slap in the face.

Finding the approach to the regiments barricaded below, the Central Executive Committee tried to get hold of the garrison from above. By agreement with the staff, they appointed Captain Malevsky, a Social Revolutionary, chief commissar for the whole district, and announced their willingness to recognise the commissars of the Soviet on condition that they submit to the chief commissar. This attempt to get astride of the Bolshevik garrison through the instrumentality of a captain unknown to anybody was obviously hopeless. Having rejected it, the Soviet broke off the negotiations.

The insurrection, laid bare by Potressov had not occurred. The enemy now confidently named another date, the 20th of October. On that day, as we know, the Congress of Soviets was originally to have opened, and the insurrection followed that Congress like its own shadow. To be sure, the Congress had already postponed its opening five days. Never mind: the object had moved, but the shadow remained. This time, too, all necessary measures were taken by the government to prevent a “coming-out.” Reinforced sentry guards were placed in the suburbs; Cossack patrols rode through the workers’ districts all night long; cavalry reserves were concealed at various points throughout the city; the militia was made ready for action, and half of its members did continual duty in the commissariats. Armoured cars, light artillery and machine-guns were set up near the Winter Palace. The approaches to the Palace were guarded by patrols.

Once more the insurrection which no one was preparing, and for which no one had issued a call, did not take place. The day went by more peacefully than many others; work in the shops and factories never ceased. Izvestia, edited by Dan, crowed about this victory over the Bolsheviks: “Their adventuring with armed demonstrations in Petrograd is about over.” The Bolsheviks have been crushed by the mere indignation of the united democracy: “They are already surrendering.” One might literally think that the enemy had lost their heads and were deliberately trying with untimely frights and still less timely trumpetings of victory to lead “public opinion” astray, and conceal the actual plans of the Bolsheviks.

The decision to create a Military Revolutionary Committee, first introduced on the 9th, was passed at a plenary session of the Soviet only a week later. The Soviet is not a party; its machinery is heavy. Four days more were required to form the Committee. Those ten days, however, did not go for nothing: the conquest of the garrison was in full swing, the Conference of regimental Committees had demonstrated its viability, the arming of the workers was going forward. And thus the Military Revolutionary Committee, although it went to work only on the 20th, five days before the insurrection, found – ready to its hands – a sufficiently well organised dominion. Being boycotted by the Compromisers, the staff of the Committee contained only Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries: that eased and simplified the task. Of the Social Revolutionaries only Lazimir did any work, and he was even placed at the head of the bureau in order to emphasise the fact that the Committee was a Soviet and not a party institution. In essence, however, the Committee, whose president was Trotsky, and its chief workers Podvoisky, Antonov-Ovseenko, Lashevich, Sadovsky, and Mekhonoshin, relied exclusively upon Bolsheviks. The committee hardly met once in plenary session with delegates present from all the institutions listed in its regulations. The work was carried on through the bureau under the guidance of the president, with Sverdlov brought in upon all important matters. And that was the general staff of the insurrection.

The bulletin of the Committee thus modestly registers its first step: commissars were appointed in the combatant units of the garrison and in certain institutions and store houses “for observation and leadership.” This meant that, having won the garrison politically, the Soviet was now getting organisational control of it. The dominant rôle in selecting these commissars was played by the Military Organisation of the Bolsheviks. Among its Petrograd members, approximately a thousand, there was no small number of resolute soldiers and young officers utterly devoted to the revolution, and who had since the July Days been tempered in the prisons of Kerensky. The commissars recruited from its midst found in the troops of the garrison a soil well prepared. The garrison considered them its own and submitted to their orders with complete willingness.

The initiative in getting possession of institutions came in most cases from below. The workers and clerical employees of the arsenal adjoining the Peter and Paul fortress themselves raised the question of the necessity of establishing control over the giving out of arms. A commissar sent there succeeded in stopping a supplemental arming of the junkers, held back 10,000 rifles on their way to the Don region, and smaller assignments to a number of suspicious organisations and persons. This control was soon extended to other arsenals and even to private dealers in weapons. It was only necessary to appeal to the committee of the soldiers, workers or clerical employees of the given institution or store, and the resistance of the administration would be immediately broken. Weapons were given out henceforth only upon the order of the commissars.

The typographical workers, through their union, called the attention of the Committee to an increase of Black Hundred leaflets and brochures. It was decided that in all suspicious cases the printers’ union should come for instructions to the Military Revolutionary Committee. This control through the typographical workers was the most effective of all possible forms of control over the printed agitation of the counter-revolution.

Not satisfied with its formal denial of the rumour of an insurrection, the Soviet openly designated Sunday the 22nd as the day for a peaceful review of its forces – not, however, in the form of street processions, but of meetings in the factories, barracks, and all the major institutions of Petrograd. With the obvious aim of provoking bloody interference, some mysterious worshippers set the same day for a church procession through the streets of the capital. Their summons, issued in the name of some unknown Cossacks, invited the citizens to take part in a religious procession “in memory of the delivery of Moscow from the enemy in 1812.” This historical pretext was none too genuine, but over and above this the organisations proposed to the Almighty to hand down a blessing upon the Cossack arms “standing guard against the enemies of the Russian land,” a proposal which clearly related to the year 1917.

There was no reason to fear a serious counter-revolutionary manifestation. The clergy had no power among the Petrograd masses; they could raise up against the Soviet under church banners only pitiful remnants of the Black Hundred gangs. But with the co-operation of the experienced provocateurs of the Intelligence Service and of Cossack officers, bloody encounters were not impossible. As a measure of prevention the Military Revolutionary Committee undertook in the first place to strengthen its influence upon the Cossack regiments; a stricter régime was also introduced in the building occupied by the revolutionary staff. “It was no longer easy to get into Smolny,” writes John Reed. “The pass system was changed every few hours; for spies continually sneaked through.” At a meeting of the Garrison Conference on the 21st devoted to a discussion of the “Soviet Day” to follow, the spokesman proposed a series of measures for the prevention of possible street clashes. The fourth Cossack regiment, which stood farthest to the Left, announced through its delegates that it would not take part in the religious procession. The fourteenth Cossack regiment announced that it would struggle with all its power against the attempts of the counter-revolution, but at the same time that it considered a coming-out for the seizure of power “untimely.” Of the three Cossack regiments only one was absent – the Uralsky – the most backward regiment, one brought into Petrograd in July for the crushing of the Bolsheviks.

Upon the proposal of Trotsky, the Conference adopted three short resolutions:

Hundreds of hands were raised for this resolution which sealed the programme of the insurrection. Fifty-seven men abstained. These were the “neutrals” – that is, the wavering enemy. Not one hand was raised against the resolution. The noose around the neck of the February régime was being drawn in a reliable knot.

In the course of the day it became known that the mysterious instigators of the religious procession had given up their demonstration “at the suggestion of the commander-in-chief of the district.” This serious moral success, an excellent measure of the social pressure of the Garrison Conference, permitted a confident prediction that on the following day the enemy, generally speaking, would not venture to poke their heads into the street.

The Military Revolutionary Committee appointed three commissars to the district headquarters – Sadovsky, Mekhonishin and Lazimir. Orders of the commander were to become effective only when countersigned by one of these three. At a telephone call from Smolny the staff sent an automobile for the delegation – the customs of the dual power were still in effect – but contrary to expectations this extreme politeness of the staff did not imply a readiness to make concessions.

After listening to the declaration of Sadovsky, Polkovnikov stated that he did not recognise any commissars and had no need of any guardianship. To a hint from the delegation that along that road headquarters might meet with resistance from the side of the troops, Polkovnikov dryly answered that the garrison was in his hands and its submission was assured. “His assurance was sincere,” writes Mekhonoshin in his memoirs. “We felt no affectation in it.” For the return trip to Smolny the delegates did not receive an official automobile.

A special session of the Conference, to which Trotsky and Sverdlov were summoned, adopted a decision: To consider the break with headquarters an accomplished fact, and make it the starting point for a further offensive. The first condition of success: The districts must be kept in touch with all stages and episodes of the struggle. The enemy must not be allowed to catch the masses unaware. Through the district soviets and committees of the party the information was sent into all parts of the town. The regiments were immediately informed of what had happened. The instructions were confirmed: Carry out only those orders which are countersigned by the commissars. It was also suggested that they send out only the most reliable soldiers for patrol duty.

But headquarters also decided to take measures. Spurred on evidently by his compromisist allies, Polkovnikov called together at one o’clock in the afternoon his own conference of the garrison, with representatives of the Central Executive Committee present. Anticipating this move of the enemy, the Military Revolutionary Committee called an emergency conference of the regimental committees at eleven o’clock, and here it was decided to formulate the break with headquarters. The appeal to the troops of Petrograd and the environs drawn up at this meeting speaks the language of a declaration of war. “Having broken with the organised garrison of the capital, headquarters is a direct instrument of the counter-revolutionary forces.” The Military Revolutionary Committee disclaims all responsibility for the activities of headquarters, and standing at the head of the garrison takes upon itself “the defence of revolutionary order against counter-revolutionary attempts.”

That was a decisive step on the road to insurrection. Or was it perhaps only the next conflict in the mechanics of that dual power which is so full of conflicts? Headquarters, at any rate, tried for its own consolation so to interpret it – after conferring with the representatives of those units which had not received in good season the summons of the Military Revolutionary Committee. A delegate sent from Smolny under the leadership of the Bolshevik ensign, Dashkevich, briefly made known to headquarters the resolution of the Garrison Conference. The few representatives of the troops present reaffirmed their loyalty to the Soviet, but refused to make a decision and dispersed. “After a prolonged exchange of opinions” – the press so quoted the words of headquarters – “no definite decision was adopted; it was thought necessary to await a solution of the conflict between the Central Executive Committee and the Petrograd Soviet.” Headquarters thus conceived its downfall as a quarrel between two soviet institutions as to which one should control its activities. That policy of voluntary blindness had this advantage, that it relieved them of the necessity of declaring war on Smolny, for which act the rulers lacked adequate forces. Thus the revolutionary conflict, already on the point of breaking out, was once more with the help of the governmental organs, confined within the legal framework of the dual power. Fearing to look reality in the face, headquarters the more loyally co-operated in camouflaging the insurrection. But was not this light-minded conduct of the powers only a camouflage for their own actual purpose? Did not headquarters intend, under cover of this bureaucratic naïveté, to deal an unexpected blow at the Military Revolutionary Committee? Such an attempt upon the part of the distraught and demoralised organs of the Provisional Government was considered highly improbable in Smolny. The Military Revolutionary Committee, however, took the most simple measures of precaution: in the nearby barracks companies were kept under arms night and day, ready at the first signal of alarm to come to the aid of Smolny.

In spite of the calling-off of the religious procession, the bourgeois press foretold bloodshed on Sunday. The compromisist paper announced in its morning edition: “Today the authorities expect a coming-out with better probability than on the 20th.” Thus for the third time in one week – the 17th, the 20th, the 22nd – this naughty boy had deceived the people with a false cry of “wolf!” The fourth time, if we can believe the old fable, the boy will fall into the wolf’s jaws. The Bolshevik press, in summoning the masses to attend meetings, spoke of a peaceful appraisal of revolutionary forces on the eve of the Congress of Soviets. This fully answered the plan of the Military Revolutionary Committee: to carry out a gigantic review without clashes, without employing weapons, even without showing them. They wanted to show the masses their own numbers, their strength, their resolution. They wanted with unanimous numbers to compel the enemy to hide, to keep out of sight, to stay indoors. By exposing the impotence of the bourgeoisie beside their own masses, they wanted to erase from the consciousness of the workers and soldiers the last hindering recollections of the July Days – to bring it about that having seen themselves the masses should say: Nothing and nobody can any longer oppose us.

“The frightened population,” wrote Miliukov five years later, “remained at home or stood aside.” It was the bourgeoisie that remained at home, and they really had been frightened by their own press. All the rest of the population thronged out to meetings from early morning to night – young and old, men and women, boys and girls, mothers with children in their arms. No meetings like this had been seen before throughout the revolution. All Petrograd, with the exception of its upper strata, was one solid meeting. In those auditoriums, continually packed to the doors, the audiences would be entirely renewed in the course of a few hours. Fresh and ever fresh waves of workers, soldiers and sailors would roll up to the buildings and flood them full. The petty bourgeoisie of the town bestirred themselves, too, aroused by these waves and by those warnings which were supposed to frighten them. Tens of thousands brimmed that immense building known as the House of the People. They filled all the theatres, filled the auditoriums of the theatres, their smoke-rooms, buffets, and foyers – filled them with a solid and excited and at the same time disciplined mass. From iron columns and upstairs windows human heads, legs and arms were hanging in garlands and clusters. There was that electric tension in the air which forebodes a coming discharge. Down with Kerensky! Down with the war! Power to the Soviets! None of the Compromisers any longer dared appear before these red hot crowds with arguments or warnings. The Bolsheviks had the floor. All the oratorical forces of the party, including delegates to the Congress who were beginning to arrive from the provinces, were brought into action. Occasionally Left Social Revolutionaries spoke – in some places anarchists – but they both tried as little as possible to distinguish themselves from Bolsheviks.

The people of the slums, of the attics and basements, stood still by the hour in threadbare coat or grey uniform, with caps or heavy shawls still on their heads, the mud of the streets soaked through their shoes, an autumn cough catching at their throats. They stood there packed shoulder to shoulder, and crowding even closer to make room for more, to make room for all, listening tirelessly, hungrily, passionately, demandingly, fearing lest they miss a word of what it is so necessary to understand, to assimilate, and to do. It had seemed as though during the months past, the weeks – at least during the very last days – all the words had been spoken. But no! Today at least those words have a different sound. The masses are experiencing them in a new way, not as a gospel but as an obligation to act. The experience of the revolution, the war, the heavy struggle of a whole bitter lifetime, rose from the deeps of memory in each of those poverty-driven men and women, expressing itself in simple and imperious thoughts: This way we can go no farther, we must break a road into the future.

Everyone who took part in the events here described has subsequently turned his eyes back to that simple and wonderful day so clearly shining out against the background of the revolution – vivid enough even without that. The image of that inspired human flood – inspired, and yet in its unconquerable power restrained – is chiselled for ever in the memory of those who saw it. “The day of the Petrograd Soviet,” writes the Left Social Revolutionary, Mstislavsky,” was celebrated at innumerable meetings with enormous enthusiasm.” The Bolshevik, Testkovsky, who spoke at two factories of the Vassilie-Ostrov district, says: “We spoke frankly to the masses of the coming seizure of power by us, and heard but words of encouragement.” “Around me,” says Sukhanov, describing a meeting in the House of the People, “there was a mood very near to ecstasy ... Trotsky had formulated some brief general resolution ... Those in favour ... Thousands and thousands raised their hands as one man. I looked at the lifted hands and burning eyes of men, women, boys, workers, soldiers, peasants, and of typically petty-bourgeois characters too ... Trotsky continued to speak. The multitude continued to hold their hands in the air. Trotsky chiselled out each word: Let this vote of yours be your oath ... The multitude held their hands high. They agreed. They took the oath.” The Bolshevik Popov tells of a rapturous oath sworn by the masses: “To rush out at the first word from the Soviet.” Mstislavsky tells of an electrified crowd taking an oath of loyalty to the soviets. The same scene was to be observed on a smaller scale in all parts of the city from centre to suburbs. Hundreds of thousands of people, at one and the same hour, lifted their hands and took a vow to carry the struggle through to the end. The daily meetings of the Soviet, the soldiers’ section, the Garrison Conference, the factory and shop committees, had given inner solidarity to a big group of leaders; separate mass meetings had united the factories and regiments; but that day, the 22nd of October, welded in one gigantic cauldron and under high temperature the authentic popular masses. The masses saw themselves and their leaders; the leaders saw and listened to the masses. Each side was satisfied with the other. The leaders were convinced: We can postpone no longer! The masses said to themselves: This time the thing will be done!

The success of this Sunday’s review of forces by the Bolsheviks shattered the self-confidence of Polkovnikov and his high command. By agreement with the government and the Central Executive Committee, headquarters made an attempt to come to terms with Smolny. Why not after all re-establish the good old friendly customs of contact and compromise? The Military Revolutionary Committee did not refuse to send emissaries for an exchange of opinion: A better opportunity for reconnoitring could hardly be wished. “The negotiations were brief,” remembers Sadovsky. “The representatives of headquarters agreed in advance to all the conditions put forth by the Soviet in exchange for which the order of the Military Revolutionary Committee for October 22 was to be annulled.” This referred to the document declaring headquarters an instrument of the counter-revolutionary forces. The very same emissaries whom Polkovnikov had so discourteously sent home two days ago now demanded, and received in their hands for the purpose of their report to Smolny, the rough draft of an agreement signed by headquarters. On Saturday these conditions of semi-honourable capitulation would have been accepted. Today, on Monday, they were already too late. Headquarters awaited an answer which never came.

The Military Revolutionary Committee addressed to the population of Petrograd a proclamation explaining the appointment of commissars in the military units and the most important points of the capital and its environs. “The commissars as representatives of the Soviet are inviolable. Opposition to the commissars is opposition to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” The citizens were invited in case of disturbances to appeal to the nearest commissar to call out armed forces. That was the language of sovereignty. But still the Committee did not give the signal for open insurrection. Sukhanov asks: “Is Smolny acting stupidly, or is it playing with the Winter Palace like a cat with a mouse, trying to provoke an attack?” Neither the one nor the other. The Committee is crowding out the government with the pressure of the masses, with the weight of the garrison. It is taking all that it can without a battle. It is advancing its positions without firing, integrating and reinforcing its army on the march. It is measuring with its own pressure the resisting power of the enemy, not taking its eyes off him for a second. Each new step forward changes the disposition of forces to the advantage of Smolny. The workers and the garrison are growing up to the insurrection. Who is to be first to issue the call to arms, will become known in the course of this offensive, this crowding out. It is now only a question of hours. If at the last moment the government finds the courage, or the despair, to give the signal for battle, responsibility for this will lie upon the Winter Palace. But the initiative just the same will have been taken by Smolny. Its declaration of October 23 had meant the overthrow of the power before the government itself was overthrown. The Military Revolutionary Committee was tying up the arms and legs of the enemy régime before striking him on the head. It was possible to apply this tactic of “peaceful penetration,” to break the bones of the enemy legally and hypnotically paralyse the remnants of his will, only because of the indubitable superiority of forces on the side of the Committee and because they were increasing hour by hour.

The Committee had been studying from day to day the map of the garrison wide open before it. It knew the temperature of each regiment, and followed every shift in the views and sympathies of the barracks. A surprise from that side was impossible. There remained, however, some dark shadows on the map. An attempt must be made to eradicate, or at least decrease, them. It had become clear on the 19th that the majority of the committees of the Peter and Paul fortress were unfavourably, or at least dubiously, disposed. Now when the whole garrison is for the Committee and the fortress is caught in a ring, at least politically, it is time to take decisive measures for its conquest. Corporal Blagonravov, the commissar appointed to the fortress, had met resistance. The governmental commandant of the fortress had refused to recognise this Bolshevik guardianship; there were even rumours of his boasting that he would arrest the young guardian. It was necessary to do something and do it quickly. Antonov offered to take a reliable battalion of the Pavlovsky regiment into the fortress and disarm the hostile units. But that was a too drastic operation, one which might be used by the officers to cause bloodshed and break the unity of the garrison. Was it really necessary to adopt such extreme measures? Says Antonov in his memoirs: “Trotsky was called in to consider this question ... Trotsky was then playing the decisive rôle. The advice he gave us was a product of his revolutionary intuition: that we capture the fortress from within. ‘It cannot be that the troops there are not sympathetic,’ he said. And he was right. Trotsky and Lashevich went to a meeting in the fortress.” The results of this enterprise, which seemed risky, were awaited in Smolny with the greatest excitement. Trotsky subsequently wrote: “On the 23rd I went to the fortress at about two o’clock in the afternoon. A meeting was in progress in the court. The orators of the right wing were in the highest degree cautious and evasive ... The soldiers listened to us and they came with us.” On the third floor of Smolny they drew a deep breath when the telephone brought this joyful news: The garrison of Peter and Paul has solemnly promised to take orders henceforth only from the Military Revolutionary Committee.

That change in the mood of the fortress troops was not of course the result of one or two speeches. It had been well prepared in the past. The soldiers turned out to be far to the left of their committees. It was only the cracked shell of the old discipline that held out a little longer behind the fortress walls than in the city barracks. One tap was enough to shatter it.

Blagonravov could now confidently establish himself in the fortress, organise his little headquarters, and set up communications with the Bolshevik soviet of the adjoining district and the committees of the nearest barracks. Meanwhile delegates from the factories and military units were coming up to see what they could do about getting weapons. An indescribable liveliness now prevailed in the fortress. “The telephone rang continually bringing news of our new successes at assemblies and mass meetings.” Occasionally an unfamiliar voice would announce the arrival at some railroad station of punitive detachments from the front. Immediate investigation would reveal that this was an invention put in circulation by the enemy.

That day the evening session of the Soviet was distinguished by the exceptional number present and the exalted mood. The occupation of Peter and Paul and the conquest of the Kronverksky arsenal containing 100,000 rifles – this was no small guarantee of success. The spokesman for the Military Revolutionary Committee was Antonov. He drew a picture of the crowding out of the governmental organs step by step by the agents of the Military Revolutionary Committee. These agents, he said, are being received everywhere as natural authorities; they obeyed not through fear but through principle. “From all sides come demands for the appointment of commissars.” The backward units are hurrying to catch up to the advanced. The Preobrazhsnsky, which in July had been the first to fall for the slander about German gold, had now issued through its commissar Chudnovsky a violent protest against the rumour that the Preobrazhentsi are for the government. The very idea is regarded as a malicious insult! ... To be sure, the customary patrol duties are still being carried out, relates Antonov, but this is done with the consent of the Committee. Orders of headquarters for the delivery of weapons and automobiles are not being carried out. Headquarters thus had ample opportunity to find out who is the master of the capital.

To a question: “Does the committee know about the movement of government troops from the front and the surrounding districts, and what measures have been taken against this?” the spokesman answered: “Cavalry units were sent from the Rumanian front, but they have been held up at Pskov; the 17th Infantry Division, finding out on the road where and why they had been sent, refused to go; in Venden two regiments successfully resisted the attempt to send them against Petrograd; we have as yet no news about the Cossacks and junkers supposed to have been sent from Kiev, or the shock troops summoned from Tsarskoe Selo. They do not dare, and they will not dare, lay hands on the Military Revolutionary Committee.” Those words sounded pretty good in the white hall of Smolny. As Antonov read his report, one had the impression that the headquarters of the insurrection was working with wide open doors. As a matter of fact, Smolny had almost nothing to hide. The political set-up of the revolution was so favourable that frankness itself became a kind of camouflage: Surely this isn’t the way they make an insurrection? That word “insurrection,” however, was not spoken by any one of the leaders. This was not wholly a formal measure of caution, for the term did not fit the actual situation. It was being left to the government of Kerensky, as you might say, to insurrect. In the account in Izvestia it does say that Trotsky at the session of the 23rd first acknowledged that the aim of the Military Revolutionary Committee was a seizure of power. It is unquestionably true that the original attitude, when the task of the Committee had been declared to be a testing out of the strategic arguments of Cheremissov, had long been abandoned. The transfer of the regiments was indeed all but forgotten. But on the 23rd the talk was still not about insurrection, but about the “defence” of the coming Congress of Soviets – with armed forces if necessary. It was still in this spirit that the resolution was adopted on the report of Antonov.

How were these events estimated in the governmental upper circles? On the night of the 22nd, in communicating to the chief of the headquarters staff, Dukhonin, the news of the attempt of the Military Revolutionary Committee to get the regiments away from the command, Kerensky added: “I think we can easily handle this.” His own departure for headquarters was delayed, he said, not at all through fear of any sort of an insurrection: “That matter could be regulated without me, since everything is organised.” To his anxious ministers Kerensky reassuringly declared that he personally, unlike them, was very glad of the coming attack since it would give him the opportunity to “settle once for all with the Bolsheviks.” “I would be ready to offer a prayer,” says the head of the government to the Kadet Nabokov, a frequent guest at the Winter Palace, “that such an attack may occur.” “But are you sure that you will be able to handle them?” “I have more forces than I need. They will be stamped Out for good.”

In their subsequent ridicule of this optimistic light-mindedness of Kerensky, the Kadets have evidently been a little forgetful. In reality Kerensky was looking at those events through their own eyes. On the 21st, Miliukov’s paper wrote that if the Bolsheviks, corroded as they are with a profound inner crisis, dare to come out, they will be put down instantly and without difficulty. Another Kadet paper added: “A storm is coming, but it will perhaps clear the air.” Dan testifies that in the couloirs of the Pre-Parliament the Kadets and those grouped around them were talking aloud of their wish that the Bolsheviks might come out as soon as possible: “In an open battle they will be beaten to the last man.” Prominent Kadets said to John Reed: After being defeated in an insurrection, the Bolsheviks won’t dare lift their heads at the Constituent Assembly.

During the 22nd and 23rd Kerensky took counsel, now with the leaders of the Central Executive Committee, now with headquarters: Would it not be advisable to arrest the Military Revolutionary Committee. The Compromisers did not advise it: they themselves would try to regulate the question about commissars. Polkovnikov also thought it would hardy be worth while to hasten with the arrests: the military forces in case of need are “more than adequate.” Kerensky listened to Polkovnikov, but still more to his friends, the Compromisers. He was confidently calculating that in case of danger the Central Executive Committee, in spite of all family misunderstandings, would come to his aid in time. It was so in July and in August. Why should it not continue so?

But now it is no longer July and no longer August. It is October. Cold and raw Baltic winds from the direction of Kronstadt are blowing through the squares and along the quays of Petrograd. Junkers in long coats to their heels are patrolling the streets, drowning their anxiety in songs of triumph.

The mounted police are riding up and down, prancing, their revolvers in brand-new holsters. No. The power still looks imposing enough! Or is this perhaps an optical illusion? At a corner of the Nevsky, John Reed, an American with naïve and intelligent eyes in his head, buys a brochure of Lenin’s entitled Will the Bolsheviks Be Able To Hold the State Power? paying for it with one of those postage stamps which are now circulating in place of money.

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Last updated on: 25 December 2014