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New Militant, 2 November 1935


Victor Serge

November 7th, 1917

Victor Serge’s Account of the Seizure of Power



From New Militant, Vol. I No. 45, 2 November 1945, p. 5.
Extract from Year One of the Russian Revolution by Victor Serge (different translation).
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On the Eve of Battle

The conflict between the two powers – the Provisional Government headed by Kerenski, and the Soviet – entered a sharper phase in Petersburg after October 16, when the Military Revolutionary Committee was formed. The Committee was headed by Antonov-Ovseenko, Podvoiski, and Chudnovski. The Petersburg garrison had come over to the Bolsheviks. The government, citing the danger of a German offensive, tried to send the revolutionary regiments off to the front. The M.R.C. was equipped with liaison, information, and armaments departments. It began by appointing commissaries in every unit of the troops. The bourgeoisie was arming – but the appointment of commissaries at the armories put a stop to that. The delegates of the M.R.C. were welcomed by the troops who knew the Committee was opposed to the order sending them to the front. The M.R.C. simply refused to countersign the order. A refusal they were artful enough to explain as giving the Committee time to examine the question ... The M.R.C. assumed general power over the troops, and ended by ordering them not to pay any attention to the regular general staff. From then on the insurrection was, so to speak, latent. Two powers measured each other and two military authorities, the one insurrectional, deliberately cancelled each other’s orders.

The Second All Russian Congress of Soviets was to meet in Petersburg on October 15. The Mensheviks managed to postpone the meet ing until the 25th (Nov. 7, New Style), thus obtaining ten days grace for the bourgeois provisional government. No one doubted but that the congress, where the Bolsheviks were certain of a majority, would vote for the seizure of power. “You are setting the date of the revolution,” said the Mensheviks to the Bolsheviks. In order that the foregone decision of the congress might be something more than a platonic expression of opinion it was necessary to support it by force of arms. As to the date for the insurrection two points of view were manifest; Trotsky wanted to tie up with the congress, believing that an independent insurrection of the party would have less chance of carrying along the masses; Lenin thought it “criminal” to temporize until the congress, fearing that the Provisional Government would forestall the insurrection by a vigorous offensive. Events failed to justify his fear,which was nonetheless legitimate. The enemy proved to be completely demoralized. In our opinion two perfectly correct conceptions, based on different considerations came into conflict on this point. The one strategical, based on the necessity for tying up the action of the party with an immediate demand intelligible to the widest masses (“All power to the Soviets ”), certainly a condition for success; the other based on a general line, to eliminate every illusion of the possibility of proletarian power before the insurrection. Once this possibility is admitted in theory, why not admit the possibility of power without insurrection? That road could lead far. Since 1906 Lenin had attacked the tendency to “Gloss over or forget the insurrection in considering the organization of revolutionary power ...” His realistic position might be expressed thus: Conquer first. Lenin wished the insurrection to forestall the congress; faced with a fait accompli the congress could not but sanction it. He urged his point of view in a personal conference with the organizers of the insurrection. He was passionately concerned with the details of the preparation, and would not consent to defer the offensive at any price. Nevski and Podvoiski tried vainly to convince him that a few extra days of preparation would only in-crease the chances of victory. “The enemy will also profit by delay,” he replied obstinately. Antonov-Ovseenko has left a striking account of an interview with Lenin, which occurred a few days before the battle in a house in the workers’ quarter of Vyborg. Lenin, hunted by Kerenski’s police, Lenin, who in case of capture would probably have been killed by a “stray” bullet, came in in disguise.

“We found ourselves in the presence of a little old graybeard wearing a pince nez,wearing it well enough, rather debonaire in fact; a musician, a teacher, or a librarian one would have thought. He took off his wig and revealed his usual humorous expression; ‘What news?’ He was full of assurance. He inquired the possibility of calling the fleet to Petersburg. In reply to the objection that this would leave the coast unprotected he said curtly: ‘The sailors must know that the revolution is in greater danger in Petersburg than on the Baltic.’”

Situated in the center of the city on the little island in the Neva River, the fortress of Peter and Paul was a source of worry to the M.R.C. Its guns commanded the Winter Palace; there were 100,000 rifles in its armory. Its garrison appeared to be faithful to the Provisional Government. Trotsky proposed to capture this citadel from the interior – by a meeting. He succeeded(with Lashevitch).

October 22 was the day of the Petersburg Soviet; it was the day of the plebiscite, so to speak, of the insurrection. It often happens that events of great importance rise from apparently unimportant immediate causes; for the latter is in reality nothing but the last link in a whole chain of causes. The Central Executive, including the treasury of the Soviet, was still in the hands of the pacifist socialists. The Soviet needed a newspaper. It was decided to hold a number of large meetings on the 22nd to raise funds for that purpose. The bourgeois press, frightened by the mobilization, announced that it was an uprising. Kerenski gave out fine-sounding statements, but they were nothing but sound. “All Russia is with us; we have nothing to fear.” And he threatened “the elements,the groups, the parties who dare attack the liberty of the Russian people, who risk opening the front to Germany, who will end by completely liquidating the revolution.” A regular Galiffet! Buthis threats were vain; he was too late. The 22nd saw a formidable mobilization of the masses. Every hall was filled. At the Peoples House (Narodni Dom) thousands filled the auditorium, the galleries, the corridors; in the great hall clusters of human beings clung shakily to the steel framework of the building ... John Reed was there; his notes on this meeting, where Trotsky roused the crowd, deserve repetition:

“The people around me appeared to be in ecstasy. It seemed that they were 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 is in favor of the resolution? The innumerable crowd raised its hand as a single man. I saw the burning eyes of men, women, adolescents,workers, soldiers, mujiks ... 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 Petersburg. 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.”

Kronstadt and the Fleet

P>On the morning of the 25th the revolutionary forces of Kronstadt received, orders to prepare to defend the Soviet Congress (for the offensive was launched under the formal cover of defense). Let us pause for a moment on the preparations at Kronstadt, of which one of the participants (I. Flerovski) has left an excellent account. The rational element, the element of coordination, the perfect organization of the insurrection as a military operation according to the rules of war, there appears most clearly; and the contrast with the spontaneous, badly organized movements so numerous in the history of the proletariat is striking.

“Preparations for the march on Petrograd were carried on during the night ... The Navy Club was jammed with soldiers, sailors, and workers, all under arms, all ready for action ... the revolutionary general staff followed the plan of operations exactly, designated the various units and sections, made inventory of supplies and ammunition, assigned the different leaders. The night passed in feverish work. The following boats were ordered to support the operation: the torpedo boat mine-layer Amour, the old cruiser Dawn of Liberty (formerly Alexander III), the monitor Vautour. The Amour and Vautour were to disembark troops in Petrograd. The cruiser was to take up a station at the entrance of the maritime canal, commanding the coastal railroad with its cannon. A feverish but silent activity went on in the streets. Army and Navy detachments marched toward the port. Only the serious, concentrated faces of the first ranks were to be seen by the light of torches. Neither laughter nor talk; only the martial tread of marching men, sharp commands, and groaning passage of trucks interrupted the silence. In the port the boats were hastily boarded. The detachments drawn up on the docks waited patiently for their turn to embark. Is it possible, I thought in spite of myself, that these can be the last moments before the Great Revolution? Everything went off with such simplicity and order that one could believe that nothing more was at stake than some everyday military maneuver. How little this resembled the revolutionary scenes that one remembers from history ... ‘This revolution,’ my companion said, ‘is going off swell.’”

This revolution went off in swell proletarian style – with organization. That is why it conquered in Petrograd, so easily and completely.

Let us borrow another significant scene from these memoires. On board one of the boats headed for the insurrection; the delegate of the revolutionary general staff enters the officers mess.

“Here the atmosphere is different. They are worried, careworn, puzzled. As I enter and salute the officers rise. They listen to my short explanation while standing. I give the order: ‘We are going to overthrow the Provisional Government by force. Power will pass to the Soviets. We do not count on your sympathy; we don’t need it. But we urge you to remain at your posts, filling your duties punctually and obeying our orders. We shall spare you superfluous trials. That is all.’ – ‘We understand,’ the captain replies. The officers file out to their posts; the captain mounts the bridge.”

A numerous fleet came to the aid of the proletariat and the garrison. The cruisers Aurora, Oleg, Novik, Zabiika, Samson, two torpedo boats and several other vessels steamed up the Neva.

The Capture of the Winter Palace

Three comrades, Podvoiski, Antonov-Ovseenko, Lashevitch, had been entrusted with organizing the capture of the Winter Palace. Schudnovski, a Bolshevik from the earliest days, who was soon to die in the Ukraine, worked with them. The former imperial residence is situated in the center of the city on the banks of the Neva. It faces Peter and Paul fortress which lies across the river at a distance of six hundred yards. To the south the palace looks out on a vast paved square which contains the Column of Alexander I. Across this square in a semi-circle are the former army and foreign affairs buildings. In 1879 the revolver shots of the student Soloviev, from whom the Autocrat Alexander II fled, doubled over, pale with fright, echoed among these buildings. In 1871 the explosion of a dynamite charge set by the carpenter Stephen Kaltourine under the imperial apartments, blasted through the square. Here on January 22, 1905, troops opened fire on the crowd of the hymn-singing workers come to petition their “Little Father Tsar.” There were fifty deaths and more than a thousand wounded – the autocracy most fatally of all, by its own bullets.

On the morning of the 25th of October Bolshevik regiments acting in concert with the Red Guard, began to encircle the Palace, now the seat of Kerenski’s ministry. The attack was planned for nine o’clock in the evening, although Lenin, ever impatient, urged them to attack sooner. While a wall of steel gradually surrounded the Palace, the Congress of Soviets met at Smolny, a former school for daughters of the nobility. Still hunted by the police a few hours before he was to become the leader of the first workers’ state, still in disguise,Lenin strode up and down a small room in the building. Of each new arrival he asked, “The Palace? Not yet taken?” His anger against temporizers mounted hourly. He threatened Podvoiski. “We must shoot him, we must shoot him.” The soldiers grouped around bonfires in the streets near the palace were equally impatient. “The Bolsheviks are turning diplomat too,” they muttered. Once more Lenin’s view in a minor detail, was that of the masses. Podvoiski, sure of victory, deferred the attack. Agitators demoralized the already doomed enemy. Every drop of revolutionary blood, now easily spared, was precious.

The first summons to surrender was sent in to the ministers at six o’clock; at eight o’clock another ultimatum; Bolshevik orators harangued the defenders. A crack battalion came over to the Bolsheviks; welcomed by a tremendous hurrah as they crossed the square. The women’s battalion surrendered a few moments later. The terrified ministers, left alone in the vast palace without lights, guarded by a handful of military cadets, still hesitated to surrender. Kerenski had run out on them, promising to return at the head of a detachment of faithful troops. They expected to be torn to pieces by an infuriated mob. The cannon of the Aurora – firing blank cartridges – finally demoralized the defenders. The attack met only feeble resistance. Grenades exploded on the great marble staircases, there was hand-to-hand fighting in the corridors. In the shadows of a great antechamber a single file of cadets crossed bayonets before a panelled door.

It was the last rampart of the last bourgeois government of Russia. Antonov-Ovseenko, Podvoiski, and Tchudnovski pushed past the motionless bayonets. “I am with you,” one of the youths whispered. Inside was the Provisional Government; thirteen pitiful, shaking ministers, thirteen fear-strained faces hidden in the shadow. As they went out of the Palace surrounded by Red Guards, a cry for their death went up. The soldiers and sailors had slight desire to see a massacre. The Red Guard kept them close. “Don’t soil the victory of the proletariat with excesses.”

Kerenski’s ministers were sent off to Peter and Paul Fortress, the former Bastille through which so many Russian heroes had passed. There they joined the last ministers of the Tsar. That was all.

In the neighboring sections of the city traffic had not even been interrupted. On the wharfs sightseers looked on quietly.

A detail of organization: in order that momentary successes of the enemy might not interfere with their work the military leaders of the insurrection had prepared two reserve headquarters.

The Congress of the Soviets

While the reds surround the Winter Palace the Petrograd Soviet meets. Lenin comes out of hiding Lenin and Trotsky announce the seizure of power. The Soviets are going to offer a democratic peace to all belligerent powers; secret treaties will be published. Lenin’s first words emphasize the importance of the bond between the peasants and the workers, which is yet unsealed:

“In Russia the immense majority of the peasantry has said:‘Enough of this game with the capitalists, we shall march with the workers.’ A single decree abolishing the landowners’ estates will gain us the confidence of the peasantry. They will understand that their salvation is with the workers. We shall set up workers control of industry ...”

The All Russian Congress of Soviets does not open until evening in the great white ball room at Smolny, illuminated by enormous chandeliers. Five hundred and sixty-two delegates are present; three hundred and eighty-two Bolsheviks, thirty-one non-party sympathizers with the Bolsheviks, seventy Left Social Revolutionaries, thirty-six center Social Revolutionaries, sixteen right Social Revolutionaries, three nationalist Social Revolutionaries, fifteen United Internationalist Social Democrats, twenty-one Menshevik partisans of national defense, seven Social Democrats from various national organizations, five anarchists. The room is crowded and feverish. The Menshevik Dan opens the congress in the name of the former All-Russian Executive;cannon thunder on the Neva as the officers are elected. The resistance of the Winter Palace drags on. Kamenev, “dressed in his best and in a holiday mood,” replace Dan as president. He proposes a three-point agenda: “Organization of Power; War and Peace; The Constituent Assembly.” The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries take the floor first. For the former Martov, their most gifted and intelligent leader, whose physical sickness seems, in spite of his great personal courage, to be sickness of the idea he serves, “Martov, planted as usual with his hand on his hip, pale, trembling and queerly twisted, shaking his ruffled hair, urges a peaceful solution of the conflict.” A little later Mistislavski takes the floor for the left Social Revolutionaries. His party mistrusted the Provisional Government and was favorable to the seizure of power by the Soviets, but had refused to join in the insurrection. He speaks in nuances. All power to the Soviets, certainly! All the more so since they have already seized power. But all military operations must be immediately stopped. How can anybody think in the middle of a cannonade? To which Trotsky replies, “Who is embarrassed by the sound of cannon? To the contrary, we shall work all the better.”

The cannon glare in the windows. A sailor from the cruiser Aurora appears in the hall to reply to the Mensheviks and the right Social Revolutionaries who are denouncing “this crime against Country and Revolution.”

“A bronzed figure he was,” Mistislavski relates, “his gestures were curt, his words cut through the air like a knife. Stocky and strong, he mounted the plat-form, his hairy chest showing beneath the high collared shirt that curved gracefully about his shaggy head. The hall crackled with excitement ... ‘The Winter Palace is finished,’ he said, ‘the Aurora is firing at point-blank range.’ ‘Oh,’ groans the Menshevik Abramovitch, on his feet, distracted and wringing his hands, ‘Oh!’ The man from the Aurora responds to this cry with a graceful gesture of magnanimity and consoles him in a loud whisper that trembles with suppressed laughter, ‘They are shooting blank cartridges. No harm must come to the ministers and the woman’s battalion.’ A turmoil ensues. The national-defensist Mensheviks and the right Social Revolutionaries, sixty delegates altogether, go out, ‘To die with the Provisional Government.’ They don’t get far; their straggling cortege found the streets barred by the Red Guard and they dispersed.”

Late in the night the Left Social Revolutionaries decided to follow the Bolsheviks and remain in the Congress.

Lenin did not mount the rostrum until the following day when the decrees on land, peace, and workers’ control of production were voted. His appearance was the signal fora tremendous acclamation. He waited calmly for it to end, looking out over the victorious crowd. Then he said quite simply, without any gesture, his two hands resting on the pulpit, his shoulders slightly inclined forward toward the crowd:

“Now we shall construct the socialist society”

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