107) How Did the Party Survive?

In recent years there have been many attempts to downgrade and belittle the role of the Bolsheviks in the workers’ movement in Russia. One of the more serious studies is Robert McKean’s book, which is very well documented, and is intended to correct the excessively rosy and simplistic picture of the old Stalinist histories which present the history of Bolshevism as a kind of triumphal march. The party made no mistakes, was always on the ascent, always in the leadership of every strike and demonstration, and so on. From such fairy tales, one can learn nothing about the way in which the Bolshevik Party was really built. Thus, the road is blocked, not only to the past, but to the future. It is necessary to understand the truth about the past in order to learn from it. While McKean’s case is probably overstated, there is no reason to doubt that the party was in very poor shape at the beginning of the war. This is hardly surprising. The objective conditions were extremely difficult at this time, McKean admits:

At the advanced Petrograd Metals plant, one memoirist recalled, the workers exhibited indifference in the first year of the war to the Bolsheviks’ antiwar case. At other cardinal defense enterprises such as Erikson and Putilov operatives voluntarily surrendered as much as a fifth of their weekly wage in order to provide support to the families whose breadwinners had been summoned to military duty. Work stoppages remained extremely rare occurrences until the summer of 1915. Bolshevik leaders themselves privately, if indirectly, admitted the existence of this impediment. In the spring of 1915, for example, they acknowledged their “inability to attract the masses to the socialist camp by demonstrations against the war.”

He quotes one unnamed worker from the red Vyborg district of Petrograd as recalling that “in the factories . . . in the first year of the war the mood was not particularly revolutionary.” And concludes that:

At most the party’s membership [in Petrograd] did not exceed 500. In the almost complete absence of all city or even district networks, consistent planned activity or the formulation of an agreed strategy proved a chimera. Agitational work could take place only on the most restricted scale. In all the constraining circumstances the outreach of the 25 or so antiwar leaflets published to the summer of 1915 and the unknown copies of Sotsial-Demokrat reaching the city was likely to have been inconsiderable.

Arguing against Soviet historians who claimed that at the outset of the war the five Bolshevik deputies reconstituted along with Kamenev the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee, McKean states that he has found no corroboration of this assertion in the relevant Okhrana files. There is no reason to doubt this, since the arrest of Kamenev along with the Duma deputies, and the general disorganization of the party committees, would have cut short its activities, if it ever had any. The absence of leadership, either from the leading bodies in Russia or from abroad, meant that everything depended on the initiative of the worker-Bolsheviks in the factories. The difficulty in getting precise information about the work of these unnamed heroes and heroines is self-evident, above all in conditions of strict clandestinity. But this lack of information does not mean that these people did not exist. The point is made by McKean who writes:

In the absence of effective leadership from abroad or from the PK [Petersburg Committee], revolutionary strategy and tactics were at the discretion of rank-and-file socialist militants throughout the first year of the war.

In preparation for January 9, 1915, the Petersburg Committee succeeded in putting out a leaflet calling for a strike on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. McKean compares the poor response to the situation after the Lena shootings in 1912. But that was the beginning of an upturn in the class struggle, when the workers were recovering from the effects of the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. In the given context of the war and patriotic reaction, the very fact of producing a leaflet at all may be considered a success. 2,000 workers responded to the call and downed tools—a small result when compared to the pre-war figures, but still a significant one in the given situation. All that it shows is that the masses still had their heads down. The orgy of reaction had still not exhausted itself:

Sweeping police raids and detentions towards the end of April put paid effectively to revolutionaries’ plans for May 1. “The work of local Leninists,” the police reported at the time, “is at present completely disorganized.” Although the remnants of the PK succeeded in publishing a leaflet on the very eve of the workers’ “holiday,” the small number of copies remained undistributed for the most part. A mere 600 workers refused to report for work on that day.579

However, the Okhrana’s agents spoke too soon. Leninism was by no means destroyed. The creation of a strong and disciplined centralized organization composed of revolutionary cadres was what permitted the Bolsheviks to survive the test of fire. They alone were in a position to sustain revolutionary work in the harsh conditions of the underground. By contrast, the war utterly disorganized the Mensheviks at grassroots level. By January 1916, Martov could write in a plaintive tone: “In Russia things are going badly for us . . . F.I. (Dan) fears that everything that is alive is going over to the Leninists.”580 This was no accident. The organizational and political flabbiness of Menshevism (which were head and tail of the same coin) rendered them ill-equipped to cope with the arduous conditions of underground work in wartime. In any case, they had made a principle out of disbanding the illegal party organization in favor of purely legal activities. How could such a position be justified now?

In fact, the Menshevik organization barely existed in Russia at this time. This is acknowledged by non-Marxist writers like Robert McKean: “The Organizational Committee and the Central Initiative Group betrayed no sign of existence in this period.” And again:

Both the Mensheviks’ dearth of organizations and the “liquidationist” intellectuals’ aversion to strikes as a form of labor protest resulted in their complete indifference to the possibility of utilizing the political anniversaries.581

The lack of an organized expression of Bolshevism does not tell us everything. If Bolshevism had been completely liquidated during the war, how was it possible for the party to recover so quickly after February? How did it succeed in moving to take power in only nine months? If one accepts McKean’s case at face value, there is no answer to this riddle. But there is, in fact, a very simple answer. In the period before the war, four-fifths of the organized workers supported the Bolsheviks. Many of them were not active in party committees, but readers of Pravda who collaborated with the Bolsheviks in one way or another. Many hundreds of thousands more would have been touched by the agitation and slogans of the Bolsheviks. The idea of the party lived on in their minds even though they had their heads down. This was the real capital of the party, that reemerged as conditions changed and played a key role in the events of February 1917. In the same letter to Shlyapnikov, where he underlines the difficult position the party found itself in after the arrest of the Duma deputies, Lenin points out the real strength of Bolshevism—in that layer of revolutionary workers educated by the party in the period 1912–14:

At all events, the work of our Party has now become 100 times more difficult. And still we shall carry it on! Pravda has trained up thousands of class-conscious workers out of whom, in spite of all difficulties, a new collective of leadersthe Russian CC of the Partywill be formed.582

Subsequent events proved Lenin to be correct, despite Robert McKean’s attempts to show the opposite. In August 1915, when the tide was already beginning to turn in Russia, Lenin wrote to Shlyapnikov, calling for the rebuilding of the organization:

It would be extremely important for leading groups to come together in two or three centers (most conspiratively), establish contact with us, restore a Bureau of the Central Committee (one exists, I think, in Petersburg already) and the CC itself in Russia. They should establish firm ties with us (if necessary, one or two persons should be brought to Sweden for this purpose). We would send news-sheets, leaflets, etc. The most important thing is firm and constant relations.583

The party still faced an uphill struggle. The party’s organizations inside Russia were badly disorganized and contacts with the exterior extremely difficult. Yet the most important thing, as Lenin pointed out in this letter, was that the party had survived, despite everything: “It is clear that the advanced sections of Pravdist workers, that bulwark of our Party, has survived, in spite of terrible devastations in its ranks.”

Lenin’s comments go right to the heart of the matter. No matter what persecution, no matter how many arrests, no matter how many police agents succeeded in infiltrating the party, Bolshevism could not be eradicated. As long as there remained a hard core of cadres, trained and educated in the ideas, methods and traditions of the party, it was invincible. Trotsky writes:

The war produced a dreadful desolation in the underground movement. After the arrest of the Duma fraction the Bolsheviks had no centralized party organization at all. The local committees had an episodic existence, and often had no connection with the workers’ districts. Only scattered groups, circles and solitary individuals did anything. However, the reviving strike movement gave them some spirit and some strength in the factories. They gradually began to find each other and build up the district connections. The underground work revived. In the Police Department they wrote later: “Ever since the beginning of the war, the Leninists, who have behind them in Russia an overwhelming majority of the underground social democratic organizations, have in their larger centers (such as Petrograd, Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, Tula, Kostroma, Vladimir Province, Samara) been issuing in considerable numbers revolutionary appeals with a demand to stop the war, overthrow the existing government, and found a republic. And this work has its palpable result in workers’ strikes and disorders.”584


579 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 368, 369, 367, and 370.

580 Pis’ima P.B. Aksel’rod Yu. O. Martova 1901–1916, 355.

581 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 371.

582 LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 11/28/1914, vol. 35, 175 (my emphasis).

583 LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 8/23/1915, vol. 35, 205.

584 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 62.

108) Catastrophe at the Front

At the commencement of hostilities, the Russian army appeared as a formidable military machine—a numberless mass of fighting men, ready to lay down their lives for the tsar like the hero of Glinka’s opera. The German officers were impressed, then appalled, by the sight of vast numbers of grey overcoats advancing remorselessly over open fields, only to be mowed down by German machine guns. Surely, here was the famous old Russian army described by Tolstoy in War and Peace, made up of mindless peasants willing to follow the orders of their superiors with blind obedience, and submit, patient and unquestioning, to the harshest impositions. This myth about the Russian people, which even surfaces today as a supposed “explanation” of the present situation, despite its patently unscientific and quasi-racist character, was blown sky-high by the real historical experience of 1914–17. The Russian army did not benefit from the vast number of troops at its disposal. It was gravely under equipped in everything. Even such elementary items as boots and rifles were in short supply, to say nothing of tanks, airplanes, shells, and artillery. In 1914 there were no more than 679 motor cars (and two motorized ambulances!) for the whole of the army.

Throughout the war, the Russian army was expected to play the role of cannon fodder for the Allies. Thus, the original plan of the Russian high command had been to launch an offensive on the Southwestern Front against the weaker Austrian forces, while defending the Northwestern Front against a stronger German force. But under pressure from France this plan was changed to an all-out offensive on both Fronts to force the Germans to transfer troops from the theater in the West and thus relieve pressure on the French. The offensive, which seemed to start well, ended in the bloody disaster of Tannenberg, where at the end of August Samsonov’s army was surrounded and cut to bits in four days of the most appalling butchery. 70,000 Russians were killed or wounded and another 100,000 taken prisoner. By contrast, the Germans losses amounted to a mere 15,000 men. In answer to the condolences offered by the French representative, the Grand Duke Nikolai, the Russian commander in chief, replied nonchalantly: “Nous sommes heureux de faire de tels sacrifices pour nos alliées” (“We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies”). By the end of 1914, Russian casualties were already in the region of 1.8 million.

All this slowly worked on the psychology and morale of the soldiers, as slow dripping wears away the hardest rock. Just as the Russian working class was in the main not patriotic in outlook, so the mass of peasants in uniform were unenthusiastic about a war which they did not understand and could not identify with. The proverbial obedience of the Russian muzhik was soon strained to the limit by the months and years of hardship, suffering and death. Orlando Figes affirms that: “The soldier of the Russian army was, for the most part, a stranger to the sentiment of patriotism.”

And to underline this point, he quotes several instructive examples:

A farm agent from Smolensk, who served in the rear garrisons, heard such comments from the peasant soldiers during the first weeks of the war:

“What devil has brought this war on us? We are butting into other people’s business.”

“We have talked it over among ourselves; if the Germans want payment, it would be better to pay ten rubles a head than to kill people.”

“Is it not all the same what tsar we live under? It cannot be worse under the German one.”

“Let them go on and fight themselves. Wait a while, we will settle accounts with you.”

These sorts of attitudes became more common in the ranks as the war went on, as Brussilov had cause to complain:

The drafts arriving from the interior of Russia had not the slightest notion of what the war had to do with them. Time after time I asked my men in the trenches why we were at war; the inevitable senseless answer was that a certain Archduke and his wife had been murdered and that consequently the Austrians had tried to humiliate the Serbians. Practically no one knew who these Serbians were; they were equally doubtful as to what a Slav was. Why Germany should want to make war on us because of these Serbians, no one could say . . . They had never heard of the ambitions of Germany; they did not even know that such a country existed.

An army always reflects the society from which it is formed. The class divisions in the tsarist army, the brutal discipline, the corruption and inefficiency, the callous indifference of the officers to the suffering and slaughter around them, did not pass unnoticed by even the most politically uneducated peasant soldier. The Allied commanders themselves were shocked by the rottenness of the Russian general staff, which was but the mirror image of the rottenness of the tsarist-Rasputin regime. The Supreme Commander himself, the Grand Duke Nikolai, had never taken part in any serious fighting and was little more than a figurehead, writes Figes. “General Yanushkevich, his Chief of Staff, had nothing to recommend him but the personal favor of the tsar, who had discovered him as a young Guardsman at the palace. He had never even commanded a battalion. Colonel Knox, the British military attaché at Stavka, gained ‘the impression of a courtier rather than a soldier’.” The rot seeped from the top down. “The aristocratic generals committed endless blunders (one even had the distinction of ordering his artillery to fire on his own infantry’s trenches).”

The growing mood of revolt is mirrored in the declarations of the troops:

“Look at the way our high-up officers live, the landowners whom we have always served,” wrote one peasant soldier to his local newspaper at home. “They get good food, their families are given everything they need, and although they may live at the Front, they do not live in the trenches where we are but four or five versts away.”

Any study of army mutinies will show that the leaders are usually the NCOs. These “natural leaders of men” are usually selected from the most energetic and intelligent layers of the soldiers. In charge with most of the day-to-day running of the army, they are frequently hostile and contemptuous of the upper echelons. Sixty percent of the NCOs in the tsarist army were peasants, mostly in their early twenties and with very little education. But, as Figes points out:

The war was . . . a great democratizer, opening channels of advancement for millions of peasant sons. Their sympathies lay firmly with the ordinary soldiers, and any hopes that they might form a bridge between the high-born officers and their low-born troops were badly misplaced. This was the radical military cohort—literate, upwardly mobile, socially disoriented and brutalized by war—who would lead the mutiny of February, the revolutionary soldiers’ committees, and eventually the drive to Soviet power during 1917. Many of the Red Army’s best commanders (e.g., Chapaev, Zhukov, and Rokossovsky) had been NCOs in the tsarist army, much as the marshals of Napoleon’s wars had begun as subalterns in the king’s army.

One such sergeant in the tsarist army, the peasant Dmitry Os’kin, who later became a Social Revolutionary, wrote in his diary, April 1915:

What are we doing in this war? Several hundred men have already passed through my platoon alone and at least half of them have ended up on the fields of battle either killed or wounded. What will they get at the end of the war? . . . My year and a half of military service, with almost a year at the Front, has stopped me from thinking about this, for the task of the platoon commander demands strict discipline and that means, above all, not letting the soldier think freely for himself. But these are the things we must think about.’585

Out of such stuff are revolutions made.

From May to September 1915 the Germans inflicted a series of shattering blows against the tsarist forces. The Russians were pushed back 300 miles, surrendering a territory bigger than France. Three quarters of a million Russian soldiers were in prisoner of war camps, and ten million people became refugees. The losses of the army in killed, wounded, and missing amounted to between 7.2 and 8.5 million men, i.e., between 45 percent and 53 percent of all the men mobilized. A million men surrendered to the German and Austrian forces during the Great Retreat.

“The army was no longer retreating but simply fleeing,” Polivanov, Minister for War, stated. “Confidence in its strength is completely destroyed . . . Headquarters has completely lost its head. Contradictory orders, wavering hither and thither, feverish changes of commanding officers, and general confusion unnerve even the most courageous men . . . The confusion at headquarters is no longer a secret and still further demoralizes the army.

At the end of July, Krivoshein, Minister of Agriculture, told the Council of Ministers:

Hungry and destitute people are bringing panic everywhere, and extinguished all the vestiges of the enthusiasm of the first months of the war. [Refugees] move in a solid mass, they tread down the fields, destroy the meadows and woods . . . The railway lines are congested; even movements of military trains and shipments of food will soon become impossible. I do not know what is going on in the areas that fall into the hands of the enemy, but I do know that not only the immediate rear of our army but the remote rear as well are devastated, ruined
. . . it is in my competence to declare, as a member of the council of ministers, that the second great migration of peoples, staged by general headquarters, will bring Russia to the abyss, to revolution and to ruin.586


585 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 257, 258, 259, 260, 264, and 265.

586 Quoted in L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 181–82.

109) Bolsheviks in the Armed Forces

The possibilities of conducting revolutionary work in the armed forces were clearly even more limited than elsewhere, although the situation began to change after 1915. It was never the Party’s policy to refuse to join the army or fight in a war, but to go with the rest of the class and conduct revolutionary work in the barracks and trenches. However, the class composition of the Russian army, overwhelmingly made up of peasant troops, initially created unfavorable conditions for revolutionary activity. The Bolsheviks did conduct work in the armed forces, especially among sailors—the navy being traditionally working class in composition. In the latter stages of the war, there was a growing radicalization and ferment in the fleet. Bad food and conditions and excessive work caused outbreaks of mutiny which was viciously put down in October 1915. Warships are like floating factories and the crews that manned them had to contain a fair number of skilled workers—engineers, stokers, electricians, and the like—drawn from the factories themselves. Many of these sailors had participated in the revolutionary movements before the war and had been Bolsheviks or at least had been touched by Bolshevik propaganda. In the Baltic Fleet almost every big ship had its group of Social Democrats. It was no accident that the sailors played a key role in 1917, or that the majority of them backed the Bolsheviks.

Among those active in the Baltic Fleet was F.F.I. Iyin—known to history as Raskolnikov—who played an important role in the revolution. His political biography is fairly typical. Born into a poor family, he discovered the ideas of Marx and Engels as a teenager and joined the RSDLP in 1910 while studying at the St. Petersburg Polytechnical Institute where Vyacheslav Molotov was one of his comrades in the Bolshevik students’ organizations. When Pravda was launched in 1912, Raskolnikov (he was now given his Party name) was one of the original editorial team, working as a secretary. He was then arrested and sentenced to three years exile in the far northern province of Archangelsk. As a result of pleas from his widowed mother, the sentence was reduced to banishment from Russia. Raskolnikov travelled to Paris where he hoped to continue his revolutionary work with the Bolsheviks, but was arrested in Germany as a spy and sent back to Russia. In 1913 he was amnestied and returned to Petersburg where he continued to work on Pravda until the outbreak of war, when he joined the navy as a cadet. It was in this situation that Raskolnikov found himself when the February Revolution broke out. There were many Raskolnikovs in the tsarist fleet.

It is impossible to know exactly how many Bolsheviks were active in the army, for obvious reasons. Such work would have been extremely clandestine. The Khrushchevite Istoriya claims the existence of more than 80 party cells in the Baltic Fleet and 30 or more on the Western Front. This is almost certainly an exaggeration. But that there were Bolsheviks active in the army and especially in the fleet is undeniable. The importance of these soldier-sailor Bolshevik agitators cannot be underestimated, but the figures given in the Istoriya are described as “approximate,” and no source given, so we must treat them with caution. The real position was undoubtedly far more complex than this. Alexander Shlyapnikov, who played a leading role in the Bolshevik Party in Russia during the war, explains that while there were many Bolsheviks and actual party organizations in the fleet, their connections with the party leadership were, at best, tenuous. Under the harsh conditions of wartime, the RSDLP sailors’ committees functioned independently, although their activities alarmed the authorities which strove to root them out through arrests and repression.

The growing strength of the revolutionary current among the sailors, particularly in the Baltic Sea Fleet, is shown obliquely by the wave of arrests of sailors that took place in Petersburg, Kronstadt, and Helsinki, coinciding with a strike wave in Petersburg in early 1916. A major trial of the “Military Organization of the Petersburg Committee of the RSDLP” was held. The voluminous Bill of Indictment drawn up by the Okhrana and filling 50 typed pages, describes the work of the Social Democrats in the navy in great detail. The tsarist secret police, whose agents closely monitored all subversive activity in the armed forces, states that:

From the autumn of 1915 reports started coming into the Kronstadt gendarmerie headquarters that there was a marked increase in the activity of revolutionary organizations of social democratic tendencies among the crews of vessels of the Baltic Fleet. These are endeavoring to place as many of their supporters in the fleet who would train the ships’ crews for actions in pursuit of a variety of demands when the war comes to an end. The aforementioned activity, although not succeeding in organizing systematic propaganda, has, as events have proved, nevertheless exerted a powerful influence on the crews’ excited mood and this in the end overflowed into major disorders on the battleship Hangut on October 19, 1915, the participants in which, namely 26 ratings, were sentenced by the Naval Court-Martial of December 17 of the same year and duly punished.

At the same time there arose similar disorders on the cruiser Riurik.

The existence of propaganda was confirmed by the participants and by disorders on other vessels that arose from the crews’ dissatisfaction with their food and officers bearing German surnames.

The Petersburg Security Department has received reports parallel to this material about the emergence of a military organization of the Russian Social Democratic Party among ship and shore-based crews of the Baltic Fleet.

According to these reports social democratic circles have been formed on each warship whose leading personnel sat on a general directing committee. The latter, by arranging gatherings ashore in teashops and restaurants, directed its energies chiefly towards explaining current events to the sailors in a desirable light with the purpose of creating a climate of discontent among them.

With the unconscious humor that is characteristic of police statements about political questions, the report continues in its poker-faced bureaucratic tone:

This approach apparently succeeded in winning some influence on the sailors, creating among them a highly restive mood for which no other reason could be observed.

What a priceless pearl of bureaucratic-police wisdom! The sailors of the Baltic Fleet faced atrocious conditions, bad food, autocratic officers, and a bloody and reactionary war, yet the police blockheads can see no reason for their “restive mood” than the malicious activity of agitators. The same malignant cause lies behind every strike and manifestation of social discontent, since the working people must be delighted to work long hours in bad conditions for low pay, for the greater glory of God and the capitalist system!

Having made this profound discovery of the law that explains everything in terms comprehensible to a policeman’s level of intelligence (i.e., demonology) the report then proceeds to contradict it:

Although the circles arose on the ships independently and outside of the influence of the group functioning in Petersburg that styles itself the Petersburg Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the leading committee of the naval organization has nonetheless from the time of appearance sought opportunities to join forces with the “Petrograd Committee” which it in fact achieved through one of the active leaders of the workers’ movement who was the representative of the Vyborg party district on the Petrograd Committee, the peasant Ivan Fedorovich Orlov.587

Here, unintentionally, the real relationship between the Bolshevik Party and the developing movement of revolt is fairly accurately described. The “highly restive mood” of the sailors was due to objective conditions that were not created by the revolutionaries, but by the tsarist regime and the imperialist war, itself the product of the unbearable contradictions of world capitalism. This inchoate but increasingly intense feeling of discontent in the mass finds a conscious expression at a certain stage through the minority who have had some experience of political life before the war, and who are able to put into words the unconscious aspirations of the majority below decks. Inevitably, this mood strives for an organized expression, and eventually finds it in the necessarily secret organizations established by the sailor-revolutionaries, who, in turn, attempt to establish contacts with the party, which remains their only point of reference. Only at this point does the Okhrana obtain the information that convinces them of the existence of a gigantic and sinister plot of some all-powerful revolutionary center which, by magical means, turns honest, god-fearing sailors into subversives “for which no other reason could be observed.”

The upsurge of the workers’ movement in St. Petersburg found an echo in the Baltic Sea Fleet. By the autumn of 1915, it seems that a fairly strong Social Democratic organization existed there, with committees on all the big warships and shore companies in Kronstadt, Helsingfors, Petersburg, and other points on the Baltic coast, all of which were linked to the “Chief Committee of the Kronstadt Military Organization.” On October 19, the anger over bad food and the harsh regime on board exploded in a protest on the battleship Hangut. The sailors seized some of the officers and contacted other vessels requesting aid. This was precisely the kind of unorganized outburst which the Bolsheviks had been striving to prevent. The movement was quickly isolated and put down with savage reprisals. 26 men stood trial and the whole group was transferred to shore duty and disbanded. At the trial in December 1915, two men were sentenced to death and 14 others to hard labor. But such sentences could not extinguish the flame of revolt. Other protests followed, provoking increasing concern in the authorities. One police report states that

functioning on board every vessel are social democratic cells that elect their own committees, each vessel’s committee having its representative on the leading committee. The aforementioned cells have arisen quite independently, owing to the existence of favorable soil in the sense of the high degree of development of the ratings and the presence among them of individuals who prior to entry into military service had already become skilled in underground work.

The report shows how the Social Democrats conducted agitation and propaganda in the canteens and cafés, explaining current events to the sailors and drawing revolutionary conclusions, while adding that

the ideological leaders of the underground work on the warships have tried in every way to restrain the sailors from sporadic unrest, in order to bring about a situation where a general action could take account of the possibility of an active movement on the part of the working class which might bring crucial influence to bear upon changing the political system . . .588

Allowing for an element of exaggeration for the sake of effect, this report of the trusted agents of the regime has obviously the ring of authenticity in at least some aspects.

Despite the impossibility of establishing the exact nature and extent of revolutionary activity in the armed forces in time of war, there can be no doubt that as time wore on and conditions worsened, the mood of the soldiers began to change and become more open to revolutionary ideas, and they looked towards the Social Democrats, especially their most radical wing, the Bolsheviks. The process is well portrayed by Trotsky in his History:

The revolutionary elements, scattered at first, were drowned in the army almost without a trace, but with the growth of the general discontent they rose to the surface. The sending of striking workers to the front as a punishment increased the ranks of the agitators and the retreat gave them a favorable audience. “The army in the rear, and especially at the front,” reports a secret agent, “is full of elements of which some are capable of becoming active forces of insurrection, and others may merely refuse to engage in punitive activities.” The Gendarme Administration of the Petrograd province declares in October 1916, on the basis of a report made by a representative of the Land Union, that “the mood in the army is alarming, the relations between officers and soldiers is extremely tense, even bloody encounters are taking place. Deserters are to be met everywhere by the thousands. Everyone who comes near the army must carry away a complete and convincing impression of the utter moral disintegration of the troops.”589


587 Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, 138–39 and 139–40 (my emphasis).

588 Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, 191.

589 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 44.

110) The Liberals Begin to Stir

The military catastrophe stirred the liberals out of their state of inertia. Under growing pressure, the tsar finally agreed to recall the Duma on July 19, 1915. Here was an opportunity to seize the reins of power from the shaky grasp of the ruling clique without a revolution! The regime was riven with splits. The Progressive Bloc was formed in the late summer, when Russia was already in the throes of a deep crisis. It ranged all the way from the moderate Nationalists and Octobrists to the Cadets and had a clear majority in the Duma—241 votes of a total of 407. “Since 1915 we patriots had almost become Cadets because the Cadets had almost become patriots,” this was how Sulgin, a Nationalist deputy, put it. In the more conservative-minded upper house, the state council, it only had 89 votes out of a total of 196. “Only a strong, firm and active authority can lead the fatherland to victory,” declared the bloc’s first manifesto.

The Mensheviks and Trudoviks—though formally outside the bloc—supported the bourgeois liberals. Once again, Chkheidze tried to frighten the bourgeoisie into taking power with the threat of the masses. For its part, the autocracy, which had originally given some concessions to the bourgeois (reshuffling certain ministers and changing a few generals) then moved away again. But all this “palace politics” with its constant game of parliamentary musical chairs was by now quite irrelevant. It is interesting to note that, while all this was going on, against the will of the bourgeoisie, the tsar had secretly entered into contact with Berlin with the aim of concluding a separate peace with Germany. This was no accident. The situation was getting serious: crisis and splits at the top; military defeats at the front; strikes and demonstrations and bourgeois opposition at home. Even the thick-headed Nicholas could now feel the ground shake under his feet. The tsar had no intention of “sharing power” with the bourgeois liberals, who were by this time toying with the idea of a palace coup to put Nicholas’ brother Mikhail on the throne. But this plan, like all the other schemes of the liberals, came to nothing.

The bourgeoisie, while striving for a place in the sun and bristling at the rule of a corrupt and incompetent autocracy, nevertheless lived in fear of revolution and constantly looked over its shoulder at the “dark masses.” Lionel Kochan quotes the comments of the director of the Police Department that the strike outbreak had acted “in a chilling manner” on the tactics of the Cadets. Fully aware of the impotence of the liberals, the government treated them with undisguised and well-merited contempt. Sazonov (Minister of Foreign Affairs) contemptuously told his fellow ministers that if the Cadets were offered some crumbs they would be the first to come to an agreement with the government.

“Milyukov is the greatest bourgeois of all and fears a social revolution more than anything else,” he continued. “Yes, and the majority of the Cadets are trembling for their investments.” If only Sazonov had trembled for his investments . . .

Shulgin defined the bloc’s aim in purely static terms—as an attempt “to calm the masses.”

The Cadets’ dilemma—to see the need for action, yet to fear to act—was graphically illuminated in V.A. Maklakov’s famous article A Tragic Situation. He compared Russia to an automobile entrusted to a chauffeur, so incapable that he is taking the vehicle to inevitable disaster. Those in the vehicle who are able to drive dare not interfere—not for one second must the car be left without a driver or else it will fly into the abyss. The chauffeur knows this and that is why he can make merry over the alarm and impotence of his passengers.

The bloc, therefore, petrified by fear lest it inadvertently admit the masses to its private quarrel with the tsar, spent its time in discussion that did not lead to action. Like so many Oblomovs, it discussed, negatively and positively, the growing despair in the country, the fear of revolution, the need for another March 11, the railway crisis, the fuel crisis . . . In retrospect, Milyukov identified the autumn of 1915 as “the precise moment” when the revolution became inevitable.590

The proposal of a parliamentary government responsible to the Duma was put forward by the left-wing Cadets and Kerensky. This was supported by the Mensheviks, but Miliukov, the Cadet leader and principal architect of the Bloc, would not hear of it. The Cadets bent over backwards to make their proposals acceptable to the tsar. But all this moderation was in vain. The tsarina and the Rasputin clique had far more influence over Nicholas than the “moderates” could ever aspire to. “‘Show your fist,’ the tsarina had urged her weak-willed husband. ‘You are the Autocrat and they dare not forget it’.”591 Nicholas responded accordingly. On September 3 the tsar ordered the dissolution of the Duma until November and began dismissing ministers he thought insufficiently trustworthy. At the beginning of October, the acting Minister of the Interior, Shcherbatov, was replaced by the reactionary Alexei N. Khvostov. Kerensky wrote bitterly:

The tsar’s co-ruler, the tsarina, was thus giving notice to the entire nation that there was to be no more vacillation in the defense of the time-honored principles of Russian autocracy. All hopes of an agreement with the Crown were crushed—that much the leaders of the Progressive Bloc now realized. What were they to do?592

What could they do? The only way to remove the regime was by mobilizing the masses for a direct onslaught. But the very thought filled these gentlemen with terror. The workers responded to the dissolution of the Duma with a protest general strike. But the slogan was not “Convene the Duma,” but “Down with the government!” The strike was to have continued for three days, but when General Frolov issued an order for the strikers to be brought before field court-martials, and so on, the Petersburg Committee resolved to strike for one more day to demonstrate that the workers were not ending the strike on the general’s orders. The Liquidators were against this and their supporters returned to work; the Bolshevik workers returned to work one day later, as had been decided. Altogether, 150,000 went on strike in Petersburg, 25,000 in Nizhni Novgorod (where they struck for only one day); there were big strikes in Moscow, Kharkov, and Yekaterinoslav.

“After these strikes,” reported Sotsial Demokrat, “the liberals went on a concerted ‘pacification’ drive, but the workers were not about to be pacified at all. The repression carried out against them, the incredible rise of inflation, and so on, heighten the revolutionary mood.”593

This strike served notice that the proletariat had recovered from the earlier setbacks and was on the move again. Such a prospect filled the liberals with dread. Far better to knuckle under to the autocracy than have another 1905! The fear of the masses ensured that the liberals’ response to the arbitrary action of the tsar would be nonexistent. Prince Lvov was elected to lead a delegation to plead with the tsar to “place the heavy burden of power upon the shoulders of men made strong by the nation’s confidence.” But Nicholas refused to receive them. They were summoned instead to the Ministry of the Interior where they were told that their “intrusion into state politics” had been presumptuous.

The dissolution of the Duma cruelly exposed the liberals’ impotence. Power lay firmly in the hands of the Romanov-Rasputin regime. The liberals were becoming desperate.

“I am afraid,” one Cadet leader told his colleagues in the autumn of 1916, “that the policy of the government will lead to a situation in which the Duma will be powerless to do anything for the pacification of the masses.”

On November 1, when the Duma reassembled, even the moderate Miliukov finally understood that time was running out for the policy of cooperation with the government. In his opening speech to the Duma, he launched an attack on the government’s abuses of power, one after another, and asking the question: “Is this folly or treason?” Of course, Milyukov had no intention of stirring up revolution—merely to frighten the autocracy into making concessions in order to save itself. But in the charged atmosphere of the times, his words had an altogether different effect—much to its author’s discomfort. Since the law prohibited its publication, the speech was copied and distributed by illegal means. The workers made use of its contents to denounce the autocracy, its ministers and all its works.

“My speech acquired the reputation of a storm-signal for the revolution,” a bemused Miliukov later recalled. “Such was not my intention. But the prevailing mood in the country served as a megaphone for my words.”594


590 L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 184, 185, and 186.

591 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 276.

592 Kerensky, Memoirs, 142.

593 Quoted in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International.

594 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 285 and 287.