The Conquest of the Capital
All is changed and yet all remains as before. The revolution has shaken the country, deepened the split, frightened some, embittered others, but not yet wiped out a thing or replaced it.
Imperial St. Petersburg seems drowned in a sleepy lethargy rather than dead. The revolution has stuck little red flags in the hands of the cast-iron monuments of the monarchy. Great red streamers are hanging down the fronts of the government buildings. But the palaces, the ministries, the headquarters, seem to be living a life entirely apart from those red banners, tolerably faded, moreover, by the autumn rains. The two-headed eagles with the sceptre of empire have been torn down where possible, but oftener draped or hastily painted over. They seem to be lurking there. All the old Russia is lurking, its jaws set in rage.
The slight figures of the militia-men at the street corners remind one of the revolution that has wiped out the old “Pharaohs,’ who used to stand there like live monuments. Moreover Russia has now for almost two months been called a republic. And the Czar’s family is in Tobolsk. Yes, the February whirlwind has left its traces. But the czarist generals remain generals, the senators senatorialise, the privy councillors defend their dignity, the Table of Precedence is still in effect. Coloured hat-bands and cockades recall the bureaucratic hierarchy; yellow buttons with an eagle still distinguish the student. And yet more important – the landlords are still landlords, no end of the war is in sight, the Allied diplomats are impudently jerking official Russia along on a string.
All remains as before and yet nobody knows himself. The aristocratic quarters feel that they have been moved out into the backyard; the quarters of the liberal bourgeoisie have moved nearer the aristocracy. From being a patriotic myth, the Russian people have become an awful reality. Everything is billowing and shaking under foot. Mysticism flares up with sharpened force in those circles which not long ago were making fun of the superstitions of the monarchy.
Brokers, lawyers, ballerinas are cursing the oncoming eclipse of public morals. Faith in the Constituent Assembly is evaporating day by day. Gorky in his newspaper is prophesying the approaching downfall of culture. The flight from raving and hungry Petrograd to a more peaceful and well-fed province, on the increase ever since the July Days, now becomes a stampede. Respectable families who have not succeeded in getting away from the capital, try in vain to insulate themselves from reality behind stone wall and under iron roof. But the echoes of the storm penetrate on every side: through the market, where everything is getting dear and nothing to be had; through the respectable press, which is turning into one yelp of hatred and fear; through the seething streets where from time to time shootings are to be heard under the windows; and finally through the back entrance, through the servants, who are no longer humbly submissive. It is here that the revolution strikes home to the most sensitive spot. That obstreperousness of the household slaves destroys utterly the stability of the family régime.
Nevertheless the everyday routine defends itself with all its might. Schoolboys are still studying the old text-books, functionaries drawing up the same useless papers, poets scribbling the verses that nobody reads, nurses telling the fairy-tales about Ivan Czarevich. The nobility’s and merchants’ daughters, coming in from the provinces, are studying music or hunting husbands. The same old cannon on the wall of the Peter and Paul fortress continues to announce the noon hour. A new ballet is going on in the Mariinsky Theatre, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tereshchenko, stronger on choreography than diplomacy, finds time, we may assume, to admire the steel toes of the ballerina and thus demonstrate the stability of the régime.
The remnants of the old banquet are still very plentiful and everything can be had for big money. The Guard officers still click their spurs accurately and go after adventures. Wild parties are in progress in the private dining-rooms of expensive restaurants. The shutting-off of the electric lights at midnight does not prevent the flourishing of gambling-clubs where champagne sparkles by candlelight, where illustrious peculators swindle no less illustrious German spies, where monarchist conspirators call the bets of Semitic smugglers, and where the astronomical figures of the stakes played for indicate both the scale of debauchery and the scale of inflation.
Can it be that a mere tram-car, run-down, dirty, dilatory, draped with clusters of people, leads from this St. Petersburg in its death-agony into the workers’ quarters so passionately and tensely alive with a new hope? The blue-and-gold cupola of Smolny Convent announces from afar the headquarters of the Insurrection. It is on the edge of the city where the tram-line ends and the Neva describes a sharp turn south, separating the centre of the capital from the suburbs. That long grey three story building, an educative barrack for the daughters of the nobility, is now the stronghold of the soviets. Its long echoing corridors seem to have been made for teaching the laws of perspective. Over the doors of many of the rooms along the corridors little enamelled tablets are still preserved: “Teacher’s Room,” “Third Grade,” “Fourth Grade,” “Grade Supervisor.” But alongside the old tablets, or covering them, sheets of paper have been tacked up as best they might, bearing the mysterious hieroglyphics of the revolution: Tz-K P-S-R, S-D Mensheviki, S-D Bolsheviki, Left S-R, Anarchist-Communists, Despatching Room of the Tz-I-K, etc., etc. The observant John Reed notices a placard on the walls: “Comrades, for the sake of your own health, observe cleanliness.” Alas, nobody observes cleanliness, not even nature. October Petrograd is living under a canopy of rain. The streets, long unswept, are dirty. Enormous puddles are standing in the court of Smolny. The mud is carried into the corridors and halls by the soldiers’ boots. But nobody is looking down now underfoot. All are looking forward.
Smolny is more and more firmly and imperiously giving commands, for the passionate sympathy of the masses is lifting her up. However, the central leadership grasps directly only the topmost links of that revolutionary system which as a connected whole is destined to achieve the change. The most important processes are taking place below, and somehow of their own accord. The factories and barracks and the chief forges of history in these days and nights. As in February, the Vyborg district focuses the basic forces of the revolution. But it has today a thing it lacked in February – its own powerful organisation open and universally recognised. From the dwellings, the factory lunch-rooms, the clubs, the barracks, all threads lead to the house numbered 33 Samsonevsky Prospect, where are located the district committee of the Bolsheviks, the Vyborg Soviet, and the military headquarters. The district militia is fusing with the Red Guard. The district is wholly in the control of the workers. If the government should raid Smolny, the Vyborg district alone could re-establish a centre and guarantee the further offensive.
The denouément was approaching close, but the ruling circles thought, or pretended to think, that they had no special cause for anxiety. The British Embassy, which had its own reasons for following events in Petrograd with some attention, received, according to the Russian ambassador in London, reliable information about the coming insurrection. To the anxious inquiries of Buchanan at the inevitable diplomatic luncheon, Tereshchenko replied with warm assurance: “Nothing of the kind” is possible; the government has the reins firmly in hand. The Russian Embassy in London found out about the revolution in Petrograd from the despatches of a British telegraph agency.
The mine owner, Auerbach, paying a visit during those days to the deputy-minister, Palchinsky, inquired in passing – after a conversation about more serious matters – as to the “dark clouds on the political horizon.” He received a most reassuring answer: The next storm in a series, and nothing more; it will pass over and all will be clear – “sleep well.” Palchinsky himself was going to pass one or two sleepless nights before he got arrested.
The more unceremoniously Kerensky treated the Compromise leaders, the less did he doubt that in the hour of danger they would come punctually to his aid. The weaker the Compromisers grew, the more carefully did they surround themselves with an atmosphere of illusion. Exchanging words of neutral encouragement between their Petrograd turrets and their upper-crust organisations in the provinces and the front, the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries created a simulacrum of public opinion, and thus disguising their own impotence, fooled not so much their enemy as themselves.
The cumbersome and good-for-nothing state apparatus, representing a combination of March socialist with czarist bureaucrat, was perfectly accommodated to the task of self-deception. The half-baked March socialist dreaded to appear to the bureaucrat a not wholly mature statesman. The bureaucrat dreaded lest he show a lack of respect to the new ideas. Thus was created a web of official lies, in which generals, district attorneys, newspaper-men, commissars, aides-de-camp, lied the more, the nearer they stood to the seats of power. The commander of the Petrograd military district made comforting reports, for the reason that Kerensky, faced by an uncomforting reality, had great need of them.
The traditions of the dual power worked in the same direction. Were not the current orders of the military headquarters, when countersigned by the Military Revolutionary Committee, implicitly obeyed? The patrolling squads throughout the city were filled out by the troops of the garrison in the usual order – and we must add, it had been long since the troops had gone their patrol duty with such zeal as now. Discontent among the masses? But “slaves in revolt” are always discontented. Only the scum of the garrison and the workers’ districts will take part in mutinous attempts. The soldiers’ sections are against headquarters? But the military department of the Central Executive Committee is for Kerensky. The whole organised democracy, with the exception of the Bolsheviks, supports the government. Thus the rosy March nimbus had turned into a grey vapour, hiding the actual traits of things.
It was only after the break between Smolny and headquarters that the government tried to adopt a more serious attitude toward the situation. There is, of course, no immediate danger, they said, but this time we must avail ourselves of the opportunity to put an end to the Bolsheviks. Besides, the bourgeois Allies were bringing every pressure to bear on the Winter Palace. On the night of the 24th the government summoned up its courage and passed a resolution: to institute legal proceedings against the Military Revolutionary Committee; to shut down the Bolshevik papers advocating insurrection; to summon reliable military detachment from the environs and from the front. The proposal to arrest the Military Revolutionary Committee as a body, although adopted in principle, was postponed in execution. For so large an undertaking, they decided, it was necessary to secure in advance the support of the Pre-Parliament.
The rumour of the government’s decision spread immediately through the town. In the building of the main headquarters along side the Winter Palace, the soldiers of the Pavlovsky regiment, one of the most reliable units of the Military Revolutionary Committee, were on sentry duty during the night of the 24th. Conversations went on in their presence about summoning the junkers, about lifting the bridges, about arrests. All that the Pavlovtsi managed to hear and remember they immediately passed on to Smolny. Those in the revolutionary centre did not always know how to make use of the communications of this self-constituted Intelligence Service. But it fulfilled an invaluable function. The workers and soldiers of the whole city were made aware of the intentions of the enemy, and reinforced in their readiness to resist.
Early in the morning the authorities began their preparations for aggressive action. The military schools of the capital were ordered to make ready for battle. The cruiser Aurora moored in the Neva, its crew favourable to the Bolsheviks, was ordered to put out and join the rest of the fleet. Military detachments were called in from neighbouring points: a battalion of shock troops from Tsarskoe Selo, the junkers from Oranienbaum, the artillery from Pavlovsk. The headquarters of the Northern front was asked to send reliable troops to the capital immediately. In the way of direct measures of military precaution, the following orders were given: to increase the guard of the Winter Palace; to raise the bridges over the Neva; to have all automobiles inspected by the junkers; to cut Smolny out of the telephone system. The Minister of Justice, Maliantovich, gave an order for the immediate arrest of those Bolsheviks released under bail who had again brought themselves to attention by anti-governmental activity. This blow was aimed primarily at Trotsky. The fickleness of the times is well illustrated by the fact that Maliantovich – as also his predecessor, Zarudny – had been Trotsky’s defence counsel in the trial of the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905. Then, too, it had been a question of the leadership of the Soviet. The indictments were identical in the two cases, except that the former defenders when they became accusers, added the little point about German gold.
Headquarters developed a particularly feverish activity in the sphere of typography. Document followed document. No coming-out will be permitted; the guilty will be held strictly responsible; detachments of the garrison not to leave their barracks without orders from headquarters; “all commissars of the Petrograd Soviet to be removed”; their illegal activities to be investigated “with a view to court martial.” In these formidable orders it was not indicated who was to carry them out or how. Under threat of personal liability the commander demanded that owners of automobiles place them at the disposal of headquarters “with a view of preventing unlawful seizures,” but nobody moved a finger in response.
The Central Executive Committee was also prolific of warnings and forbiddings. And the peasant executive committee, the city duma, the central committees of the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries followed in its steps. All these institutions were sufficiently rich in literary resources. In the proclamations which plastered the walls and fences, the talk was invariably about a handful of lunatics, about the danger of bloody encounters, about the inevitability of counter-revolution.
At five-thirty in the morning a government commissar with a detachment of junkers showed up at the Bolshevik printing-plant, and after manning the exits, presented an order of headquarters for the immediate suppression of the central organ and the soldiers’ paper. – What? Headquarters? Does that still exist? No orders are recognised here without the sanction of the Military Revolution Committee. But that did not help. The stereotypes were smashed, the building sealed. The government had scored its first success.
A worker and a working-girl from the Bolshevik printing-plant ran panting to Smolny and there found Podvoisky and Trotsky. If the Committee would give them a guard against the junkers, the workers would bring out the paper. A form was soon found for the first answer to the government offensive. An order was issued to the Litovsky regiment to send a company immediately to the defence of the workers’ press. The messengers from the printing-plant insisted that the 6th battalion of sappers be also ordered out: these were near neighbours and loyal friends. Telephonograms were immediately sent to the two addresses. The Litovtsi and the sappers came out without delay. The seals were torn from the building, the moulds again poured, and the work went on. With a few hours’ delay the newspaper suppressed by the government came out under protection of the troops of a committee which was itself liable to arrest. That was insurrection. That is how it developed.
During this same time the cruiser Aurora had addressed a question to Smolny: Shall we go to sea or remain in the Neva? The very same sailors who had guarded the Winter Palace against Kornilov in August were now burning to settle accounts with Kerensky. The government order was promptly countermanded by the Committee and the crew received Order No.1218: “In case of an attack on the Petrograd garrison by the counter-revolutionary forces, the cruiser Aurora is to protect herself with tugs, steam-boats, and cutters.” The cruiser enthusiastically carried out this order, for which it had only been waiting.
These two acts of resistance, suggested by workers and sailors, and carried out, thanks to the sympathy of the garrison, with complete impunity, became political events of capital importance. The last remnants of the fetishism of authority crumbled to dust. “It became instantly clear,” says one of the participants, “that the job was done!” If not yet done, it was at least proving much simpler than anyone had imagined yesterday.
An attempt to suppress the papers, a resolution to prosecute the Military Revolutionary Committee, an order removing commissars, the cutting-out of Smolny’s telephones – these pin-pricks were just sufficient to convict the government of preparing a counter-revolutionary coup d’état. Although an Insurrection can win on the offensive, it develops better, the more it looks like self-defence. A piece of official sealing-wax on the door of the Bolshevik editorial-rooms – as a military measure that is not much. But what a superb signal for battle! Telephonograms to all districts and units of the garrison announced the event: “The enemy of the people took the offensive during the night. The Military Revolutionary Committee is leading the resistance to the assault of the conspirators.” The conspirators – these were the institutions of the official government. From the pen of revolutionary conspirators this term came as a surprise, but it wholly corresponded to the situation and to the feelings of the masses. Crowded out of all Its positions, compelled to undertake a belated defence, incapable of mobilising the necessary forces, or even finding out whether it had such forces, the government had developed a scattered, unthought-out, uncoordinated action, which in the eyes of the masses inevitably looked like a malevolent attempt. The Committee’s telephonograms gave the command: “Make the regiment ready for battle and await further orders.” That was the voice of a sovereign power. The commissars of the Committee, themselves liable to removal by the government, continued with redoubled confidence to remove those whom they thought it necessary to remove.
The Aurora in the Neva meant not only an excellent fighting unit in the service of the insurrection, but a radio-station ready for use. Invaluable advantage! The sailor Kurkov has remembered: “We got word from Trotsky to broadcast ... that the counter-revolution had taken the offensive.” Here too the defensive formulation concealed a summons to insurrection addressed to the whole country. The garrisons guarding the approaches to Petrograd were ordered by radio from the Aurora to hold up the counter-revolutionary echelons, and, in case admonitions were inadequate, to employ force. All revolutionary organisations were placed under obligation “to sit continually, accumulating all possible information as to the plans and activities of the conspirators.” There was no lack of proclamations, however, the word was not divorced from the deed, but was a comment on it.
Somewhat belatedly the Military Revolutionary Committee undertook a more serious fortification of Smolny. In leaving the building at three o’clock on the night of the 24th, John Reed noticed machine-guns at the entrances and strong patrols guarding the gates and the adjacent street corners. The patrols had been reinforced the day before by a company of the Litovsky regiment and a company of machine-gunners with twenty-four machine-guns. During the day the guard increased continually. “In the Smolny region,” writes Shliapnikov, “I saw a familiar picture, reminding me of the first days of the February revolution around the Tauride Palace.” The same multitude of soldiers, workers and weapons of all kinds. Innumerable cords of firewood had been piled up in the court – a perfect cover against rifle-fire. Motor-trucks were bringing up foodstuffs and munitions. “All Smolny,” says Raskolnikov, “was converted into an armed camp. Cannon were in position out in front of the columns. Machine-guns alongside them ... Almost on every step those same ‘maxims,’ looking like toy-cannon. And through all the corridors ... the swift, loud, happy tramp of workers, soldiers, sailors and agitators.” Sukhanov, accusing the organisers of the insurrection – not without foundation – of insufficient military precaution, writes: “Only now, in the afternoon and evening of the 24th, did they begin to bring up armed detachments of Red Guards and soldiers to Smolny to defend the headquarters of the insurrection ... By the evening of the 24th the defence of Smolny began to look like something.”
This matter is not without importance. In Smolny, whence the compromisist Executive Committee had managed to steal away to the headquarters of the government staff, there were now concentrated the heads of all the revolutionary organisations led by the Bolsheviks. Here assembled on that day the all important meeting of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks to take the final decision before striking the blow. Eleven members were present. Lenin had not yet turned up from his refuge in the Vyborg district. Zinoviev also was absent from the session. According to the temperamental expression of Dzerzhinsky, he was “hiding and taking no part in the party work.”
Kamenev, on the other hand, although sharing the views of Zinoviev, was very active in the headquarters of the insurrection. Stalin was not present at the session. Generally speaking he did not appear at Smolny, spending his time in the editorial office of the central organ. The session, as always, was held under the chairmanship of Sverdlov. The official minutes of the session are scant, but they indicate everything essential. For characterising the leading participants in the revolution, and the distribution of functions among them, they are irreplaceable.
It was a question of taking full possession of Petrograd in the next twenty-four hours. That meant to seize those political and technical institutions which were still in the hands of the government. The Congress of Soviets must hold its session under the Soviet power. The practical measures of the nocturnal assault had been worked out, or were being worked Out, by the Military Revolutionary Committee and the Military Organisations of the Bolsheviks. The Central Committee was to underline the final points.
First of all a proposal of Kamenev was adopted: “Today no member of the Central Committee can leave Smolny without a special resolution.” It was decided over and above that, to keep on duty here members of the Petrograd Committee of the party. The minutes read further: “Trotsky proposes that they place at the disposal of the Military Revolutionary Committee two members of the Central Committee for the purpose of establishing communications with the postal and telegraph workers and the railroad workers; a third member to keep the Provisional Government under observation.” It was resolved to delegate Dzerzhinsky to the postal and telegraph workers, Bubnov to the railroad workers. At first, and obviously at Sverdlov’s suggestion, it was proposed to allot the watch over the Provisional Government to Podvoisky. The minutes read: “Objections to Podvoisky; Sverdlov is appointed.” Miliutin, who passed as an economist, was appointed to organise the supply of food for the period of the insurrection. Negotiations with the Left Social-Revolutionaries were entrusted to Kamenev, who had the reputation of a skilful although too yielding parliamentary. “Yielding,” of course, only from a Bolshevik criterion. “Trotsky proposes” – we read further – “that a reserve headquarters be established in the Peter and Paul fortress, and that one member of the Central Committee be sent there for that purpose” It was resolved: “To appoint Lashevich and Blagonravov for general observation; to commission Sverdlov to keep in continual touch with the fortress.” Further: “To supply all members of the Central Committee with passes to the fortress.”
Along party lines all threads were held in the hands of Sverdlov, who knew the cadres of the party as no one else did. He kept Smolny in touch with the party apparatus, supplied the Military Revolutionary Committee with the necessary workers, and was summoned into the Committee for counsel at all critical moments. Since the Committee had a too broad, and to some extent fluid, membership, the more conspirative undertakings were carried out through the heads of the Military Organisation of the Bolsheviks, or through Sverdlov, who was the unofficial but all the more real “general secretary” of the October insurrection.
The Bolshevik delegates arriving in those days for the Soviet Congress would come first into the hands of Sverdlov, and would not be left for one unnecessary hour without something to do. On the 24th there were already two or three hundred provincial delegates in Petrograd, and the majority of them were included one way or another in the mechanics of the insurrection. At two o’clock in the afternoon, they assembled at a caucus in Smolny to hear a report from the Central Committee of the party. There were waverers among them who, like Zinoviev and Kamenev, preferred a waiting policy; there were also newcomers who were merely not sufficiently reliable. There could be no talk of expounding before this caucus the whole plan of the insurrection. Whatever is said at a large meeting inevitably gets abroad. It was still impossible even to throw off the defensive envelope of the attack without creating confusion in the minds of certain units of the garrison. But it was necessary to make the delegates understand that a decisive struggle had already begun, and that it would remain only for the Congress to crown it.
Referring to recent articles of Lenin, Trotsky demonstrated that “a conspiracy does not contradict the principles of Marxism,” if objective relations make an insurrection possible and inevitable. “The physical barrier on the road to power must be overcome by a blow ...” However, up till now the policy of the Military Revolutionary Committee has not gone beyond the policy of self-defence. Of course this self-defence must be understood in a sufficiently broad sense. To assure the publication of the Bolshevik press with the help of armed forces, or to retain the Aurora in the waters of the Neva – “Comrades, is that not self-defence? – It is defence!” If the government in tends to arrest us, we have machine-guns on the roof of Smolny in preparation for such an event. “That also, comrades, is a measure of defence.” But how about the Provisional Government? says one of the written questions. What if Kerensky tries not to submit to the Congress of Soviets? The spokesman replied: If Kerensky should attempt not to submit to the Congress of Soviets, then the resistance of the government would have created “not a political but a police question.” That was in essence almost exactly what happened.
At that moment Trotsky was called out to consult with a deputation just arrived from the city duma. In the capital, to be sure, it was still quiet, but alarming rumours were on foot. The mayor put these questions: Does the Soviet intend to make an insurrection, and how about keeping order in the city? And what will become of the duma itself if it does not recognise the revolution? These respected gentlemen wanted to know too much. The answer was: The question of power is to be decided by the Congress of Soviets. Whether this will lead to an armed struggle “depends not so much upon the soviets as upon those who, in conflict with the unanimous will of the people, are retaining the state of power in their hands.” If the Congress declines the power, the Petrograd Soviet will submit. But the government itself is obviously seeking a conflict. Orders have been issued for the arrest of the Military Revolutionary Committee. The workers and soldiers can only reply with ruthless resistance. What about looting and violence from criminal gangs? An order of the Committee issued today reads: “At the first attempt of criminal elements to bring about disturbances, looting, knifing or shooting on the streets of Petrograd, the criminals will be wiped off the face of the earth.” As to the city duma, it will be possible in case of a conflict to employ constitutional methods – dissolution and a new election. The delegation went away dissatisfied. But what had they as a matter of fact expected?
That official visit of the City Fathers to the camp of the rebels was only too candid a demonstration of the impotence of the ruling groups. “Remember, comrades,” said Trotsky upon returning to the Bolshevik caucus, “that a few weeks ago when we won the majority, we were only a trade-name – without a printing press, without a treasury, without departments – and now the city duma sends a deputation to the arrested Military Revolutionary Committee” for information as to the destiny of the city and the state.
The Peter and Paul fortress, won over politically only yesterday, is today completely taken possession of by the Military Revolutionary Committee. The machine-gun crew, the most revolutionary unit, is being brought into fighting trim. A mighty work of cleaning the Colt machine-guns is in progress – there are eighty of them. Machine-guns are set up on the fortress wall to command the quay and the Troitsky bridge. The sentry guard at the gates is reinforced. Patrols are sent out into the surrounding districts. But in the heat of these morning hours it suddenly becomes known that within the fortress itself the situation is not assured. The uncertainty lies in a bicycle battalion. Recruited, like the cavalry, from well-to-do and rich peasants, the bicycle men, coming from the intermediate city layers, constituted a most conservative part of the army. A theme for idealistic psychologists: Let a man find himself, in distinction from others, on top of two wheels with a chain – at least in a poor country like Russia – and his vanity begins to swell out like his tyres. In America it takes an automobile to produce this effect.
Brought in from the front to put down the July movement, the bicycle battalion had zealously stormed the Palace of Kshesinskaia, and afterward been installed in Peter and Paul as one of the most reliable detachments. It was learned that at yesterday’s meeting which settled the fate of the fortress, the bicycle men had not been present. The old discipline still held in the battalion to such an extent that the officers had succeeded in keeping the soldiers from going into the fortress court. Counting on these bicycle men, the commandant of the fortress held his chin high, frequently got into telephone connection with Kerensky’s headquarters, and even professed to be about to arrest the Bolshevik commissar. The situation must not be left indefinite for an extra minute. Upon an order from Smolny, Blagonravov confronts the enemy: the colonel is subjected to house arrest, the telephones are removed from all officers’ apartments. The government staff calls up excitedly to know why the commandant is silent, and in general what is going on in the fortress. Blagonravov respectfully reports over the telephone that the fortress henceforward fulfils only the orders of the Military Revolutionary Committee, with which it behoves the government in the future to get in connection.
All the troops of the fortress garrison accepted the arrest of the commandant with complete satisfaction, but the bicycle men bore themselves evasively. What lay concealed behind their sulky silence a hidden hostility or the last waverings? “We decided to hold a special meeting for the bicycle men,” writes Blagonravov, “and invite our best agitational forces, and above all Trotsky, who had enormous authority and influence over the soldier masses.” At four o’clock in the afternoon the whole battalion met in the neighbouring building of the Cirque Moderne. As governmental opponent, Quartermaster-General Poradelov, considered to be a Social-Revolutionary, took the floor. His objections were so cautious as to seem equivocal; and so much the more destructive was the attack of the Committee’s representatives. This supplementary oratorical battle for the Peter and Paul fortress ended as might have been foreseen: by all voices except thirty the battalion supported the resolution of Trotsky. One more of the potential bloody conflicts was settled before the fighting and without bloodshed. That was the October insurrection. Such was its style.
It was now possible to rely upon the fortress with tranquil confidence. Weapons were given out from the arsenal without hindrance. At Smolny, in the Factory and Shop Committee room, delegates from the plants stood in line to get orders for rifles. The capital had seen many queues during the war years – now it saw rifle-queues for the first time. Trucks from all the districts of the city were driving up to the arsenal. “You would hardly have recognised the Peter and Paul fortress,” writes the worker Skorinko. “It’s renowned silence was broken by the chugging automobiles, shouts, and the creak of wagons. There was a special bustle in the storehouses ... Here too they led by us the first prisoners, officers and junkers.”
The meeting in the Cirque Moderne had another result. The bicycle men who had been guarding the Winter Palace since July withdrew, announcing that they would no longer consent to protect the government. That was a heavy blow. The bicycle men had to be replaced by junkers. The military support of the government was more and more reducing itself to the officers’ schools – a thing which not only narrowed it extremely, but also conclusively revealed its social constitution.
The workers of the Putilov wharf – and not they alone – were insistently urging Smolny to disarm the junkers. If this measure had been taken after careful preparation, in co-operation with the non-combatant units of the schools, on the night of the 25th, the capture of the Winter Palace would have offered no difficulties whatever. If the junkers had been disarmed even on the night of the 26th, after the capture of the Winter Palace, there would have been no attempted counter-insurrection on the 29th of October. But the leaders were still in many directions revealing a “magnanimous spirit” – in reality an excess of optimistic confidence – and did not always listen attentively enough to the sober voice of the lower ranks. In this Lenin’s absence, too, was felt. The masses bad to correct these omissions and mistakes, with unnecessary losses on both sides. In a serious struggle there is no worse cruelty than to be magnanimous at an inopportune time.
At an afternoon session of the Pre-Parliament, Kerensky sings his swan-song. During recent days, he says, the population of Russia, and especially of the capital, has been in a constant state of alarm. “Calls for insurrection appear daily in the Bolshevik papers.” The orator quotes the articles of the wanted state criminal, Vladimir Ulianov Lenin. The quotations are brilliant and irrefutably prove that the above-named individual is inciting to insurrection. And when? At a moment when the government is just taking up the question of transferring the land to the peasant committees, and of measures to bring the war to an end. The authorities have so far made no haste to put down the conspirators, wishing to give them the opportunity to correct their own mistakes. “That is just what is wrong!” comes from the section where Miliukov is leader. But Kerensky is unabashed. “I prefer in general,” he says, “that a government should act more slowly, and thus more correctly, and at the necessary moment more decisively.” From those lips the words have a strange sound At any rate: “All days of grace are now past”; the Bolsheviks have not only not repented, but they have called out two companies, and are independently distributing weapons and cartridges. This time the government intends to put an end to the lawlessness of the rabble. “I choose my words deliberately: rabble.” This insult to the people is greeted on the right with loud applause. He, Kerensky, has already given orders, he says, for the necessary arrests. “Special attention must be given to the speeches of the President of the Soviet, Bronstein-Trotsky.” And be it known that the government has more than adequate forces; telegrams are coming in continually from the front demanding decisive measures against the Bolsheviks. At this point Konovalov hands the speaker the telephonogram from the Military Revolutionary Committee to the troops of the garrison, instructing them to “make the regiment ready for battle and await further orders.” After reading the document Kerensky solemnly concludes: “In the language of the law and of judicial authority that is called a state of insurrection.” Miliukov bears witness: “Kerensky pronounced these words in the complacent tone of a lawyer who has at last succeeded in getting evidence against his opponent.” “Those groups and parties who have dared to lift their hands against the state,” he concludes, “are liable to immediate, decisive and permanent liquidation.” The entire hall, except the extreme left, demonstratively applauded. The speech ended with a demand: that this very day, in this session, an answer be given to the question, “Can the government fulfil its duty with confidence in the support of this lofty assemblage?” Without awaiting the vote, Kerensky returned to headquarters – confident, according to his own account, that an hour would not pass before he would receive the needed decision. For what purpose it was needed remains unknown.
However, it turned out otherwise. From two to six o’clock the Mariinsky Palace was busy with factional and inter-factional conferences, striving to work out a formula. The conferees did not understand that they were working out a formula for their own funeral. Not one of the compromisist groups had the courage to identify itself with the government. Dan said: “We Mensheviks are ready to defend the Provisional Government with the last drop of our blood; but let the government make it possible for the democracy to unite around it.” Towards evening the left faction of the Pre-Parliament, worn out with the search for a solution, united on a formula borrowed by Dan from Martov, a formula which laid the responsibility for insurrection not only on the Bolsheviks, but also on the government, and demanded immediate transfer of the land to the Land Committees, intercession with the Allies in favour of peace negotiations, etc. Thus the apostles of moderation tried at the last moment to counterfeit those slogans which only yesterday they had been denouncing as demagogy and adventurism. Unqualified support to the government was promised by the Kadets and Cossacks – that is, by those two groups who intended to throw Kerensky over at the very first opportunity – but they were a minority. The support of the Pre-Parliament could have added little to the government, but Miliukov is right: this refusal of support robbed the government of the last remnants of its authority. Had not the government itself only a few weeks before determined the composition of the Pre-Parliament?
While they were seeking a salvation formula in the Mariinsky Palace, the Petrograd Soviet was assembling in Smolny for purposes of information. The spokesman considered it necessary to remind the Soviet that the Military Revolutionary Committee had arisen “not as an instrument of insurrection, but on the basis of revolutionary self-defence.” The Committee had not permitted Kerensky to remove the revolutionary troops from Petrograd, and it had taken under its protection the workers’ press. “Was this insurrection?” The Aurora stands today where she stood last night. “Is this insurrection?” We have today a semi-government, in which the people do not believe, and which does not believe in itself, because it is inwardly dead. This semi-government is awaiting that swish of the historic broom that will clear the space for an authentic government of the revolutionary people. Tomorrow the Congress of Soviets will open. It is the duty of the garrison and the workers to put all their forces at the disposal of the Congress. “If, however, the government attempts to employ the twenty-four hours remaining to it in plunging a knife into the back of the revolution then we declare once more: The vanguard of the revolution will answer blow with blow and iron with steel.” This open threat was at the same time a political screen for the forthcoming night attack. In conclusion Trotsky informed the meeting that the Left Social-Revolutionary faction of the Pre-Parliament, after today’s speech from Kerensky and a mouse-riot among the Compromise factions, had sent a delegation to Smolny to express its readiness to enter officially into the staff of the Military Revolutionary Committee. In this shift of the Left Social Revolutionaries the Soviet joyfully welcomed a reflection of deeper processes: the widening scope of the peasant war and the successful progress of the Petrograd insurrection.
Commenting on this speech of the President of the Petrograd Soviet, Miliukov writes: “Probably this was Trotsky’s original plan – having prepared for battle, to confront the government with the ‘unanimous will of the people’ as expressed in the Congress of Soviets, and thus give the new power the appearance of a legal origin. But the government proved weaker than he expected, and the power fell into his hands of its own accord before the Congress had time to assemble and express itself.” What is true here, is that the weakness of the government exceeded all expectations. But from the beginning the plan had been to seize the power before the Congress opened. Miliukov recognises this, by the way, in a different connection. “The actual intentions of the leaders of the revolution,” he says, “went much further than these official announcements of Trotsky. The Congress of Soviets was to be placed before a fait accompli.”
The purely military plan consisted originally of guaranteeing a united action of the Baltic sailors and the armed Vyborg workers. The sailors were to come by railroad and detrain at the Finland station, which is in the Vyborg district, and then from this base by way of a further assimilation of the Red Guard and units of the garrison, the insurrection was to spread to other districts of the city, and having seized the bridges, to advance into the centre for the final blow. This scheme – naturally deriving from the circumstances, and formulated, it seems, by Antonov – was drawn up on the assumption that the enemy would be able to put up a considerable resistance. It was just this premise that soon fell away. It was unnecessary to start from a limited base, because the government proved open to attack wherever the insurrectionists found it necessary to strike a blow.
The strategic plan underwent changes in the matter of dates also, and that in two directions: the insurrection began earlier and ended later than had been indicated. The morning attacks of the government called out by way of self-defence an immediate resistance from the Military Revolutionary Committee. The impotence of the authorities, thus revealed, impelled Smolny during the same day to offensive actions – preserving, to be sure, a half-way, semi-disguised and preparatory character. The main blow as before was prepared during the night: in that sense the plan held good. It was transgressed, however, in the process of fulfilment – but now in an opposite direction. It had been proposed to occupy during the night all the commanding summits, and first of all the Winter Palace where the central power had taken refuge. But time-calculations are even more difficult in insurrection than in regular war. The leaders were many hours late with the concentration of forces, and the operations against the palace, not even begun during the night, formed a special chapter of the revolution ending only on the night of the 26th – that is, a whole twenty-four hours late. The most brilliant victories are not achieved without duds.
After Kerensky’s speech at the Pre-Parliament the authorities tried to broaden their offensive. The railroad stations were occupied by detachments of junkers. Pickets were posted at the big street-crossings and ordered to requisition the private automobiles not turned over to headquarters. By three o’clock in the afternoon the bridges were raised, except for the Dvortsovy which remained open under heavy guard for the movement of the junkers. This measure, adopted by the monarchy at all critical moments and for the last time in the February Days, was dictated by fear of the workers’ districts. The raising of the bridges was received by the population as an official announcement of the beginning of the insurrection. The headquarters of the districts concerned immediately answered this military act of the government in their own way by sending armed detachments to the bridges. Smolny had only to develop their initiative. This struggle for the bridges assumed the character of a test for both sides. Parties of armed workers and soldiers brought pressure to bear on the junkers and Cossacks, now persuading and now threatening. The guard finally yielded without hazarding a straight-out fight. Some of the bridges were raised and lowered several times.
The Aurora received a direct order from the Military Revolutionary Committee: “With all means at your command restore movement on the Nikolaevsky Bridge.” The commander of the cruiser at first refused to carry out the order, but, after a symbolic arrest of himself and all his officers, obediently brought the ship to the bridge. Cordons of sailors spread out along both quays. By the time the Aurora had dropped anchor before the bridge, relates Korkov, the tracks of the junkers were already cold. The sailors themselves lowered the bridge and posted guards. Only Dvortsovy Bridge remained several hours in the hands of the government patrols.
Notwithstanding the manifest failure of its first experiments, individual branches of the government tried to deal further blows. A detachment of militia appeared in the evening at a big private printing-plant to suppress the newspaper of the Petrograd Soviet, Worker and Soldier. Twelve hours before, the workers of the Bolshevik press had run for help in a like case to Smolny. Now there was no need of it. The printers, together with two sailors who happened by, immediately captured the automobile loaded with papers; a number of the militia joined them on the spot; the inspector of militia fled. The captured paper was successfully delivered at Smolny. The Military Revolutionary Committee sent two squads of the Preobrazhentsi to protect the publication. The frightened administration thereupon turned over the management of the printing-plant to the soviet of worker-overseers.
The legal authorities did not even think of penetrating Smolny to make arrests: it was too obvious that this would be the signal for a civil war in which the defeat of the government was assured in advance. There was made, however, as a kind of administrative convulsion, an attempt to arrest Lenin in the Vyborg district, where, generally speaking, the authorities were afraid even to look in. Late in the evening a certain colonel with a dozen junkers accidentally entered a workers’ club instead of the Bolshevik editorial rooms located in the same house. The brave boys had for some reason imagined that Lenin would be waiting for them in the editorial rooms. The club immediately informed the district headquarters of the Red Guard. While the colonel was wandering around from one storey to another, arriving once even among the Mensheviks, a detachment of Red Guards, rushing up, arrested him along with his junkers, and brought them to the headquarters of the Vyborg district, and thence to the Peter and Paul fortress. Thus the loudly proclaimed campaign against the Bolsheviks, meeting insuperable difficulties at every step, turned into disconnected jumps and small anecdotes, evaporated, and came to nothing.
During this time the Military Revolutionary Committee was working day and night. Its commissars were on continual duty in the military units. The population was notified in special proclamations where to turn in case of counter-revolutionary attempts or pogroms: Help will be given on the instant.” A suggestive visit to the telephone exchange from the commissar of the Keksgolmsky regiment proved sufficient to get Smolny switched back into the system. Telephone communications, the swiftest of all, gave confidence and regularity to the developing operations.
Continuing to plant its own commissars in those institutions which had not yet come under its control, the Military Revolutionary Committee kept broadening and reinforcing its bases for the coming offensive. Dzerzhinsky that afternoon handed the old revolutionist Pestkovsky a sheet of paper in the form of credentials appointing him to the office of commissar of the central telegraph station. But how shall I get possession of the telegraph station? – asked the new commissar in some surprise. The Keksgolmsky regiment is supplying sentries there and it is on our side! Pestkovsky needed no further illumination. Two Keksgolmsti, standing by the commutator with rifles, proved sufficient to attain a compromise with the hostile telegraph officials, among whom were no Bolsheviks.
At nine o’clock in the evening another commissar of the Military Revolutionary Committee, Stark, with a small detachment of sailors under the command of the former émigré Savin, also a seaman, occupied the government news agency and therewith decided not only the fate of that institution, but also to a certain degree his own fate: Stark became the first Soviet director of the agency, before being appointed Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan.
Were these two modest operations acts of insurrection, or were they only episodes in the two-power system – transferred, to be sure, from the compromisist to the Bolshevik rails? The question may perhaps reasonably be regarded as casuistic, but for the purpose of camouflaging an insurrection it had a certain importance. The fact is that even the intrusion of armed sailors into the building of the news agency had still a sort of half-way character: it was not yet a question of seizing the institution, but only of establishing a censorship over despatches. Thus right up to the evening of the 24th, the umbilical cord of “legality” was not conclusively severed. The movement was still disguising itself with the remnants of the two-power tradition.
In working out the plans of the insurrection, Smolny rested great hopes on the Baltic sailors as a fighting detachment combining proletarian resolution with strict military training. The arrival of the sailors in Petrograd had been dated in advance to coincide with the Congress of Soviets. To call the Baltic sailors in earlier would have meant to take openly the road of insurrection. Out of this arose a difficulty which subsequently turned into a delay.
During the afternoon of the 24th, two delegates from the Kronstadt Soviet, the Bolshevik Flerovsky and the Anarchist Yarchuk, who was keeping step with the Bolsheviks, arrived in Smolny for the Congress. In one of the rooms of Smolny they ran into Chudnovsky, who had just returned from the front, and who, alluding to the mood of the soldiers, spoke against insurrection in the near future. “At the height of the argument,” relates Flerovsky, “Trotsky came into the room, Calling me aside, he advised me to return immediately to Kronstadt: ‘Events are maturing so fast that everyone must be at his post ...’ In this curt order I felt keenly the discipline of the advancing insurrection.” The argument was cut short. The impressionable and hot-headed Chudnovsky laid aside his doubts in order to take part in drawing up the plans of the fight. On the heels of Flerovsky and Yarchuk went a telephonogram: “The armed forces of Kronstadt are to come out at dawn for the defence of the Congress of Soviets.”
Through Sverdlov the Military Revolutionary Committee sent a telegram that night to Helsingfors, to Smilga, the president of the regional Committee of the Soviets: “Send regulations.” That meant: Send immediately 1,500 chosen Baltic sailors armed to the teeth. Although the sailors could reach Petrograd only during the next day, there was no reason to postpone military action; the internal forces were adequate. Yes, and a postponement was impossible. Operations had already begun. If reinforcements should come from the front to help the government, then the sailors would arrive in time to deal them a blow in the flank or rear.
The tactical plans for the conquest of the capital were worked out chiefly by the staff of the Military Organisation of the Bolsheviks. Officers of the general staff would have found many faults in them, but military academicians do not customarily take part in the preparation of a revolutionary insurrection. The essentials at any rate were taken care of. The city was divided into military divisions, each subordinate to the nearest headquarters. At the most important points companies of the Red Guard were concentrated in co-ordination with the neighbouring military units, where companies on duty were awake and ready. The goal of each separate operation, and the forces for it, were indicated in advance. All those taking part in the insurrection from top to bottom – in this lay its power, in this also at times its Achilles’ heel – were imbued with absolute confidence that the victory was going to be won without casualties.
The main operation began at two o’clock in the morning. Small military parties, usually with a nucleus of armed workers or sailors under the leadership of commissars, occupied simultaneously, or in regular order, the railroad stations, the lighting plant, the munition and food stores, the waterworks, Dvortsovy Bridge, the Telephone Exchange, the State Bank, the big printing-plants. The Telegraph Station and the Post Office were completely taken over. Reliable guards were placed everywhere.
Meagre and colourless is the record of the episodes of that October night. It is like a police report. All the participants were shaking with a nervous fever. There was no time to observe and record and no one to do it. The information flowing in at headquarters was not always jotted down, and if so it was done carelessly. Notes got lost. Subsequent recollections were dry and not always accurate, since they came for the most part from accidental people. Those workers, sailors, and soldiers who really inspired and lead the operation took their places soon after at the head of the first detachments of the Red Army, and the majority laid down their lives in the various theatres of the civil war. In the attempt to determine the sequence of separate episodes, the investigator runs into a vast confusion, which is still more complicated by the accounts in the newspapers. At times it seems as though it was easier to capture Petrograd in the autumn of 1917 than to recount the process fourteen years later.
To the first company of the sapper battalion, the strongest and most revolutionary, was given the task of seizing the nearby Nikolaevsky railroad station. In less than a quarter of an hour the station was occupied by strong guards without a blow. The government squad simply evaporated in the darkness. The keenly cold night was full of mysterious movements and suspicious sounds. Suppressing a sharp alarm in their hearts, the soldiers would conscientiously stop all passers-by, on foot or in vehicles, meticulously inspecting their documents. They did not always know what to do. They hesitated – most often let them go. But confidence increased with every hour. About six in the morning the sappers held up two truckloads of junkers – about sixty men – disarmed them, and sent them to Smolny.
That same sapper battalion was directed to send fifty men to guard the food warehouses, twenty-one to guard the Power Station, etc. Order followed order, now from Smolny, now from the district. Nobody offered a murmur of objection. According to the report of the commissar, the orders were carried out “immediately and exactly.” The movement of the soldiers acquired a precision long unseen. However rickety and crumbly that garrison was – good only for scrap-iron in a military sense – on that night the old soldierly drill re-awoke, and for one last moment tensed every nerve and muscle in the service of the new goal.
Commissar Uralov received two authorisations: one, to occupy the printing-plant of the reactionary paper Russkaia Volia, founded by Protopopov a little while before he became the last Minister of the Interior of Nicholas II; the other, to get a troop of soldiers from the Semenov Guard regiment which the government for old times’ sake was still considering its own. The Semenovtsi were needed for the occupation of a printing plant. The printing-plant was needed to issue the Bolshevik paper in large format and with a big circulation. The soldiers had already lain down to sleep. The commissar briefly told them the object of his visit. “I hadn’t stopped talking when a shout of ‘Hurrah!’ went up on all sides. The soldiers were jumping out of their bunks and crowding around me in a close circle.” A truck loaded with Semenovtsi approached the printing-plant. The workers of the night-shift quickly assembled in the rotary-press room. The commissar explained why he had come. “And here, as in the barracks, the workers answered with shouts of ‘Hurrah! Long live the Soviets!’” The job was done. In much the same manner the other institutions were seized. It was not necessary to employ force, for there was no resistance. The insurrectionary masses lifted their elbows and pushed out the lords of yesterday.
The commander of the district reported that night to general headquarters and the headquarters of the Northern front over the military wire: “The situation in Petrograd is frightful. There are no street demonstrations or disorders, but a regulated seizure of institutions, railroad stations, also arrests, is in progress ... The junkers’ patrols are surrendering without resistance ... We have no guarantee that there will not be an attempt to seize the Provisional Government.” Polkovnikov was right: they had no guarantee of that.
In military circles the rumour was going round that agents of the Military Revolutionary Committee had stolen from the desk of the Petrograd commandant the password for the sentries of the garrison. That was not at all improbable. The insurrection had many friends among the lower personnel of all institutions. Nevertheless this tale about stealing the password is apparently a legend which arose in the hostile camp to explain the too humiliating ease with which the Bolshevik patrols got possession of the city.
An order was sent out through the garrison from Smolny during the night: Officers not recognising the authority of the Military Revolutionary Committee to be arrested. The commanders of many regiments fled of their own accord, and passed some nervous days in hiding. In other units the officers were removed or arrested. Everywhere special revolutionary committees or staffs were formed and functioned hand in hand with the commissars. That this improvised command did not stand very high in a military sense, goes without saying. Nevertheless it was reliable, and the question here was decided primarily in the political court.
It is necessary to add, however, that with all their lack of experience the staffs of certain units developed a considerable military initiative. The committee of the Pavlovsky regiment sent scouts into the Petrograd district headquarters to find out what was going on there. The chemical reserve battalion kept careful watch of its restless neighbours, the junkers of the Paylovsky and Vladimirsky schools, and the students of the cadet corps. The chemical men from time to time disarmed junkers in the street and thus kept them cowed. Getting into connection with the soldier personnel of the Pavlovsky school, the staff of the chemical battalion saw to it that the keys of the weapons were in the hands of the soldiers.
It is difficult to determine the number of forces directly engaged in this nocturnal seizure of the capital – and this not only because nobody counted them or noted them down, but also because of the character of the operations. Reserves of the second and third order almost merged with the garrison as a whole. But it was only occasionally necessary to have recourse to the reserves. A few thousand Red Guards, two or three thousand sailors – tomorrow with the arrivals from Kronstadt and Helsingfors there will be about treble the number – a score of infantry companies: such were the forces of the first and second order with whose aid the insurrectionists occupied the governmental high points of the capital.
At 3.20 in the morning the chief of the political administration of the War Ministry, the Menshevik Sher, sent the following information by direct wire to the Caucasus: “A meeting of the Central Executive Committee together with the delegates to the Congress of Soviets is in progress with an overwhelming majority of Bolsheviks. Trotsky has received an ovation. He has announced that he hopes for a bloodless victory of the insurrection, since the power is in their hands. The Bolsheviks have begun active operations. They have seized the Nikolaevsky Bridge and posted armoured cars there. The Pavlovsky regiment has posted pickets on Milliony Street near the Winter Palace, is stopping everybody, arresting them, and sending them to Smolny Institute. They have arrested Minister Kartashey and the general administrator of the Provisional Government, Halperin. The Baltic railroad station is also in the hands of the Bolsheviks. If the front does not intervene, the government will be unable to resist with the forces on hand.”
The joint session of the Executive Committees about which Lieutenant Sher’s communication speaks, opened in Smolny after midnight in unusual circumstances. Delegates to the Congress of Soviets brimmed the hall in the capacity of invited guests. Reinforced guards occupied the entrances and corridors. Trenchcoats, rifles, machine-guns filled the windows. The members of the Executive Committees were drowned in this many-headed and hostile mass of provincials. The high organ of the “democracy” looked already like a captive of the insurrection. The familiar figure of the president, Cheidze, was absent. The invariable spokesman, Tseretelli, was absent. Both of them, frightened by the turn of events, had surrendered their responsible posts, and abandoning Petrograd, left for their Georgian homeland. Dan remained as leader of the Compromise bloc. He lacked the sly good humour of Cheidze, and likewise the moving eloquence of Tseretelli. But he excelled them both in obstinate short-sightedness. Alone in the president’s chair the Social Revolutionary, Gotz, opened the session. Dan took the floor amid an utter silence which seemed to Sukhanov languid – to John Reed “almost threatening.” The spokesman’s hobby was a new resolution of the Pre-Parliament, which had tried to oppose the insurrection with the dying echo of its own slogans. “It will be too late if you do not take account of this decision,” cried Dan, trying to frighten the Bolsheviks with the inevitable hunger and the degeneration of the masses. “Never before has the counter-revolution been so strong as at the given moment,” he said – that is, on the night before October 25, 1917. The frightened petty-bourgeois confronted by great events sees nothing but dangers and obstacles. His sole recourse is the pathos of alarm. “In the factories and barracks the Black Hundred press is enjoying a far more considerable success than the socialist press.” Lunatics are leading the revolution to ruin just as in 1905 “when this same Trotsky stood at the head of the Petrograd Soviet.” But no, he cried, the Central Executive Committee will not permit an insurrection. “Only over its dead body will the hostile camps cross their bayonets.” Shouts from the benches: “Yes, it’s been dead a long time!” The entire hall felt the appropriateness of that exclamation. Over the corpse of Compromise the bayonets of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat had already crossed. The voice of the orator is drowned in a hostile uproar, his pounding on the table is futile, his appeals do not move, his threats do not frighten. Too late! Too late!
Yes, it is an insurrection! Replying in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee, the Bolshevik party, the Petrograd workers and soldiers, Trotsky now throws off the last qualification. Yes, the masses are with us, and we are leading them to the assault! “If you do not weaken there will be no civil war, for the enemy is already capitulating, and you can assume the place of master of the Russian land which of right belongs to you.” The astounded members of the Central Executive Committee found no strength even to protest. Up to now the defensive phraseology of Smolny had kept up in them, in spite of all the facts, a glimmering spark of hope. Now that too was extinguished. In those hours of deep night the insurrection lifted its head high.
That session so rich in episodes closed at four o’clock in the morning. The Bolshevik speakers would appear in the tribune only to return immediately to the Military Revolutionary Committee, where from all corners of the city news uniformly favourable was pouring in. The patrols in the streets were doing their work, the government institutions were being occupied one after the other; the enemy was offering no resistance anywhere.
It had been assumed that the central Telephone Exchange would be specially well fortified, but at seven in the morning it was taken without a fight by a company from the Keksgolmsky regiment. The insurrectionists could now not only rest easy about their own communications, but control the telephone connections of the enemy. The apparatus of the Winter Palace and of central headquarters was promptly cut out.
Almost simultaneously with the seizure of the Telephone Exchange a detachment of sailors from the Marine Guard, about forty strong, seized the building of the State Bank on the Ekaterininsky Canal. The bank clerk Ralzevich recalls that the sailors “worked with expedition,” immediately placing sentries at each telephone to cut off possible help from outside. The occupation of the building was accomplished “without any resistance, in spite of the presence of a squad from the Semenovsky regiment.” The seizure of the bank had to some extent a symbolic importance. The cadres of the party had been brought up on the Marxian criticism of the Paris Commune of 1871, whose leaders, as is well known, did not venture to lay hands on the State Bank. “No we will not make that mistake,” many Bolsheviks had been saying to themselves long before October 25. News of the seizure of the most sacred institution of the bourgeois state swiftly spread through the districts, raising a warm wave of joy.
In the early morning hours the Warsaw railroad station was occupied, also the printing-plant of the Stock Exchange News and Dvortsovy Bridge under Kerensky’s very windows. A commissar of the Committee presented the soldier patrol from the Volinsky regiment in Kresty Prison with a resolution demanding the liberation of a number of prisoners according to the lists of the Soviet. The prison administration tried in vain to get instructions from the Minister of Justice: he was too busy. The liberated Bolsheviks, among them the young Kronstadt leader, Roshal, immediately received military appointments.
In the morning, a party of junkers who had left the Winter Palace in a truck in search of provisions, and been held up by the sappers at Nikolaevsky station, were brought to Smolny. Podvoisky relates the following: “Trotsky told them that they were free on condition that they give a promise not to take further action against the Soviet power, and that they might go back to their school and get to work. The youngsters, who had expected a bloody end, were unspeakably surprised at this.” To what extent their immediate liberation was wise, remains in doubt. The victory was not yet finally achieved. The junkers were the chief force of the enemy. On the other hand, with the wavering moods in the military schools, it was important to prove by example that a surrender to the mercy of the victor would not threaten the junkers with punishment. The arguments in both directions seemed about equal.
From the War Ministry, not yet occupied by the insurrectionists, General Levitsky sent word by direct wire to General Dukhonin at headquarters: “The troops of the Petrograd garrison ... have gone over to the Bolsheviks. The sailors and a light-armed cruiser have come from Kronstadt. They have lowered the raised bridges. The whole town is covered with sentry guards from the garrison. But there has been no coming-out. (!) The Telephone Exchange is in the hands of the garrison. The troops in the Winter Palace are defending it only in a formal sense, since they have decided not to come out actively. The general impression is that the Provisional Government finds itself in the capital of a hostile state which has finished mobilisation but not yet begun active operations.” Invaluable military and political testimony! To be sure, the general anticipates events when he says the sailors have arrived from Kronstadt: they will arrive a few hours later. The bridge was really let down by the crew of the Aurora. The hope expressed in conclusion that the Bolsheviks, “having long been actually in a position to get rid of us ... will not dare come into conflict with the opinion of the army at the front,” is rather naïve. However, these illusions about the front were about all that the rear generals had left, or the rear democrats either. At any rate that image of the Provisional Government finding itself in the capital of a hostile state will go into the history of the revolution forever as the best possible explanation of the October event.
Meetings were continuous in Smolny. Agitators, organisers, leaders of factories, regiments, districts, would appear for an hour or two, sometimes for a few minutes, to get news, to check up on their own activities and return to their posts. Before room 18, the quarters of the Bolshevik faction of the Soviet, there was an indescribable jam. Tired to death, those arriving would often fall asleep right in the assembly ball, leaning their unbearably heavy heads against a white column, or against the walls in the corridors, with both arms around their rifles – or sometimes they would simply stretch out in piles on the dirty wet floor. Lashevich was receiving the military commissars and giving them their last instructions. In the quarters of the Military Revolutionary Committee on the third floor, reports coming in from all sides would be converted into orders. Here beat the heart of the insurrection.
The district centres reproduced the picture of Smolny on a smaller scale. In the Vyborg district Opposite the headquarters of the Red Guard on Samsonevsky Prospect a whole camp was created: the street was jammed full of wagons, passenger-cars and trucks. The institutions of the district were swarming with armed workers. The soviet, the duma, the trade unions, the factory and shop committees – everything in this district – were serving the cause of the insurrection. In the factories and barracks and various institutions the same thing was happening in a smaller way as throughout the whole capital: they were crowding out some and electing others, breaking the last threads of the old ties, strengthening the new. The backward ones were adopting resolutions of submission to the Military Revolutionary Committee. The Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries timidly shrank aside along with the factory administrations and the commanding staff of the troops. At continuous meetings fresh information was given out, fighting confidence kept up and ties reinforced. The human masses were crystallising along new axes; a revolution was achieving itself.
Step by step we have tried to follow in this book the development of the October insurrection: the sharpening discontent of the worker masses, the coming over of the soviets to the Bolshevik banners, the indignation of the army, the campaign of the peasants against the landlords, the flood-tide of the national movement, the growing fear and distraction of the possessing and ruling classes, and finally the struggle for the insurrection within the Bolshevik party. The final act of the revolution seems, after all this, too brief, too dry, too business-like – somehow out of correspondence with the historic scope of the events. The reader experiences a kind of disappointment. He is like a mountain climber, who, thinking the main difficulties are still ahead, suddenly discovers that he is already on the summit or almost there. Where is the insurrection? There is no picture of the insurrection. The events do not form themselves into a picture. A series of small operations, calculated and prepared in advance, remain separated one from another both in space and time. A unity of thought and aim unites them, but they do not fuse in the struggle itself. There is no action of great masses. There are no dramatic encounters with the troops. There is nothing of all that which imaginations brought up upon the facts of history associate with the idea of insurrection.
The general character of the revolution in the capital subsequently moved Masaryk, among many others, to write: “The October revolution ... was anything but a popular mass movement. That revolution was the act of leaders working from above and behind the scenes.” As a matter of fact it was the most popular mass-insurrection in all history. The workers had no need to come out into the public square in order to fuse together: they were already politically and morally one single whole without that. The soldiers were even forbidden to leave their barracks without permission: upon that point the order of the Military Revolutionary Committee fell in with the order of Polkovnikov. But those invisible masses were marching more than ever before in step with the events. The factories and barracks never lost connection for a minute with the district headquarters, nor the districts with Smolny. The Red Guard detachments felt at their back the support of the factories. The soldier squad returning to the barracks found the new shifts ready. Only with heavy reserves behind them could revolutionary detachments go about their work with such confidence.
The scattered government patrols, in contrast, being convinced in advance of their own isolation, renounced the very idea of resistance. The bourgeois classes had expected barricades, flaming conflagrations, looting, rivers of blood. In reality a silence reigned more terrible than all the thunders of the world. The social ground shifted noiselessly like a revolving stage, bringing forward the popular masses, carrying away to limbo the rulers of yesterday.
As early as ten o’clock on the morning of the 25th, Smolny considered it possible to broadcast through the capital and throughout the whole country a triumphant announcement: “The Provisional Government is overthrown. The state power has passed into the hands of the Military Revolutionary Committee.” In a certain sense this declaration was very premature. The government still existed, at least within the territory of the Winter Palace. Headquarters existed; the provinces had not expressed themselves; the Congress of Soviets had not yet opened. But the leaders of an insurrection are not historians; in order to prepare events for the historians they have to anticipate them. In the capital the Military Revolutionary Committee was already complete master of the situation. There could be no doubt of the sanction of the Congress. The provinces were awaiting Petrograd’s initiative. In order to get complete possession of the power it was necessary to act as a power. In a proclamation to the military organisations of the front and rear, the Committee urged the soldiers to watch vigilantly over the conduct of the commanding staff, to arrest officers not adhering to the revolution, and not to stop at the use of force in case of attempts to throw hostile divisions against Petrograd.
The chief commissar of headquarters, Stankevich, having arrived the night before from the front and not wishing to remain wholly inactive, placed himself at the head of a half-company of military engineering students in the morning, and undertook to clean the Bolsheviks out of the Telephone Exchange. It was in this way that the junkers first found out who had possession of the telephone connections. “There is a model of energy for you,” exclaimed officer Sinegub, grinding his teeth. “But where did they get such leadership?” The sailors occupying the telephone building could easily have shot down the junkers through the windows. But the insurrectionists were striving with all their might to avoid bloodshed, and Stankevich had given strict orders not to open fire lest the junkers be accused of shooting at the people. The commanding officer thought to himself: “Once order is restored, who will dare to peep?” and concluded his meditations with an exclamation: “Damned clowns!” This is a good formula for the attitude of the officers to the government. On his own initiative Sinegub sent to the Winter Palace for hand grenades and sticks of pyroxyle. In the interval a monarchist lieutenant got into an argument at the gates of the Exchange with a Bolshevik ensign. Like the heroes of Homer they exchanged mighty epithets before the battle. Finding themselves between two fires – for the time only wordy ones – the telephone girls gave free reign to their nerves. The sailors let them go home. “What’s this? Women? ... They fled with hysterical screams through the gates. “The deserted Morskaia,” relates Sinegub, “was suddenly enlivened with running and jumping skirts and hats.” The sailors managed somehow to handle the work of the switchboard. An armoured car from the Reds soon entered the court of the Exchange, doing no damage to the frightened junkers. They on their side seized two trucks and barricaded the gates of the Exchange from the outside. A second armoured car appeared from the direction of the Nevsky, and then a third. It all came down to manoeuvres and attempts to frighten each other. The struggle for the Exchange was decided without pyroxyle: Stankevich raised the siege after negotiating a free passage for his junkers.
Weapons in general are still serving merely as an external sign of power: they are not being brought into action. On the road to the Winter Palace a half-company of junkers runs into a crew of sailors with rifles cocked. The enemies only measure each other with their eyes. Neither side wants to fight: the one through consciousness of strength, the other of weakness. But where chance offers, the insurrectionists – especially the workers – promptly disarm the enemy. A second half-company of those same engineering junkers was surrounded by Red Guards and soldiers, disarmed by them with the help of armoured cars, and taken prisoner. Even here, however, there was no conflict; the junkers did not put up a fight. “Thus ended,” says the initiator of it, “the sole attempt, so far as I know, at active resistance to the Bolsheviks.” Stankevich has in mind, of course, operations outside the Winter Palace region.
By noon the streets around the Mariinsky Palace were occupied by troops of the Military Revolutionary Committee. Members of the Pre-Parliament were just assembling for a meeting. The præsidium made an attempt to get the latest news; their hearts sank when they learned that the telephones of the palace had been cut out. The Council of Elders went into session to decide what to do. The deputies murmured meanwhile in the corners. Avksentiev offered consolation: Kerensky has gone to the front, and will be back soon and fix everything. An armoured car drew up at the entrance. Soldiers of the Litovsky and Keksgolmsky regiments and sailors of the Marine Guard entered the building, formed in line on the staircase, and occupied the first hall. The commander of the detachment suggested to the deputies that they leave the palace at once. “The impression created was appalling,” testifies Nabokov. The members of the Pre-Parliament decided to disperse, “temporarily suspending their activities.” Forty-eight right wing members voted against submitting to violence, quite evidently knowing they would be in a minority. The deputies peacefully descended the magnificent stairway between two rows of rifles. An eye-witness testifies: “In all this there was no attempt at dramatics.” “Ordinary, meaningless, obtuse, malicious physiognomies,” writes the liberal patriot, Nabokov, of these Russian soldiers and sailors. Down below at the entrance the soldiers inspected their papers and let them all through. “A sorting of members and some arrests have been expected,” writes Miliukov himself let out with the others. “But the revolutionary headquarters had other things to worry about.” It was not only that. The revolutionary staff had little experience. The instructions read: Arrest members of the government if found. But none were found. The members of the Pre-Parliament were freely released, among them some who soon became organisers of the civil war.
This parliamentary hybrid, which ended its existence twelve hours in advance of the Provisional Government, had lived in the world for eighteen days. That was the interval between the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from the Mariinsky Palace to the streets and the entry of the armed street forces into the Mariinsky Palace ... Of all the parodies of popular representation in which history is so rich, this Council of the Russian Republic was perhaps the most absurd.
After leaving the unlucky building, the Octobrist Shidlovsky went strolling through the town to see the fights – for these gentlemen believed that the people were going to rise in their defence. But no fighting was to be seen. Instead, according to Shidlovsky, the public in the streets – the select crowd, that is, along the Nevsky Prospect – were to the last man laughing. “Have you heard about it? The Bolsheviks have seized the power. Well, that won’t last more than three days. Ha, ha, ha!” Shidlovsky decided to remain in the capital “during the period which social rumour designated for the rule of the Bolsheviks.”
The Nevsky public had begun to laugh, it may be remarked, only towards evening. In the morning such a mood of alarm had prevailed that hardly anybody in the bourgeois districts dared go into the streets at all. At about nine o’clock a journalist, Knizhnik, ran out on Kamenoöstrovsky Prospect in search of newspapers, but could find no stands. In a little group of citizens he learned that the Bolsheviks had occupied the telephone, the telegraph, and the Bank during the night. A soldier patrol listened to them and asked them not to make so much noise. “But even without that everybody was unusually subdued.” Armed detachments of workers were going by. The tramcars moved as usual – that is, slowly. “The scarcity of passers-by oppressed me,” writes Knizhnik about the Nevsky. Food could be had in the restaurants, but for the most part in back rooms. At noon the cannon from the walls of Peter and Paul, now safely occupied by the Bolsheviks, thundered out neither louder nor more gently than usual. The walls and fences were pasted over with proclamations warning against insurrection, but other proclamations were already making their way, announcing the victory of the insurrection. There was no time yet to paste them up; they were tossed out from automobiles. Just off the press, these handbills smelled of fresh inks as though of the events themselves.
Companies of the Red Guard had emerged from their districts. The worker with a rifle, the bayonet above hat or cap, the rifle-belt over a civilian coat – that is the essential image of the 25th of October. Cautiously and still diffidently, the armed worker was bringing order into the capital conquered by him, The tranquillity of the street instilled tranquillity in the heart. The philistines began to dribble down from their houses. Towards evening they felt even less anxious than during the preceding days. Business, to be sure, had come to an end in the governmental and social institutions, but many stores remained open. Others were closed rather through excessive caution than necessity. Can this be insurrection? Is an insurrection like this? The February sentries have merely been replaced by those of October.
By evening the Nevsky was even fuller than usual of that public which was giving the Bolsheviks three days of life. The soldiers of the Pavlovsky regiment, although their patrols were reinforced by armoured cars and even anti-aircraft guns, had already ceased to inspire fear. To be sure, something serious was going on around the Winter Palace and they would not let you through there, but still an insurrection could not very well all be concentrated on Winter Palace square. An American journalist saw old men in rich fur coats shake their gloved fists at the Pavlovtsi, and handsomely dressed women scream abuse in their faces. “The soldiers argued feebly with embarrassed grins.” They were obviously at a loss on that elegant Nevsky, not yet converted into the “Prospect of the Twenty-Fifth of October.”
Claude Anet, the official French journalist in Petrograd, was sincerely surprised that these absurd Russians should make a revolution not at all as he had read about it in the old books. “The city is quiet.” He calls up his friends on the telephone, receives visitors, and at noon leaves the house. The soldiers who block his road on Moika Street march in perfect order “as under the old régime.” There are innumerable patrols on Milliony Street. There is no shooting anywhere. The immense square of the Winter Palace at this noon hour is still almost empty. There are patrols on Morskaia and Nevsky. The soldiers carry themselves in military style, and are dressed irreproachably. At first glance it seems certain that these are government troops. On Mariinsky Square, whence Anet intends to make his way into the Pre-Parliament, he is stopped by soldiers and sailors. “Mighty polite, I assure you.” Two streets leading up to the palace are barricaded with automobiles and wagons – here, too, an armoured car. These are all under Smolny. The Military Revolutionary Committee has sent out patrols through the town, posted sentries, dissolved the Pre-Parliament, taken command of the capital, and established therein a state of order “unseen since the revolution began.” In the evening the janitress informs her French lodger that telephone numbers have been sent over from Soviet headquarters, by which at any moment he can summon military help in case of attack, suspicious search-parties, etc. “As a fact they never guarded us better.”
At 2.35 in the afternoon – the foreign journalists looked at their watches, the Russians were too busy – an emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet was opened with a report by Trotsky, who in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee announced that the Provisional Government no longer existed. “They told us that an insurrection would drown the revolution in torrents of blood ... We do not know of a single casualty,” There is no example in history of a revolutionary movement involving such gigantic masses being so bloodless. “The Winter Palace is not yet taken, but its fate will be settled in the course of the next few minutes.” The following twelve hours were to show that this prediction was too optimistic.
Trotsky said: “Troops have been moved against Petrograd from the front; it is necessary at once to send commissars of the soviets to the front, and throughout the country, to make known that the revolution has occurred.” Voices from the small right sector: “You are anticipating the will of the Congress of Soviets.” The speaker answered: “The will of the Congress has been anticipated by the colossal fact of an insurrection of the Petrograd workers and soldiers. It now remains only to develop our victory.”
Lenin, who appeared here publicly for the first time after emerging from underground, briefly outlined the programme of the revolution: To break up the old governmental apparatus; to create a new system of administration through the soviets; to take measures for the immediate cessation of war, relying upon revolutionary movements in other countries; to abolish the landlords’ property rights and thus win the confidence of the peasants; to establish workers’ control over production. “The third Russian revolution,” he said, “must in the end lead to the victory of socialism.”
Source: Marxist Internet Archive