History was being written in Russia 100 years ago today, with a series of uprisings that would define the nation, its politics and foreign affairs for most of the next century.
The events of November 7th, 1917, were pivotal in ringing the death knell for the old Russian Empire, ruled the Tsar and his imperial government, and laying the foundation for what would become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Engineering that monumental change were the Bolshevik revolutionaries, led by Vladimir Lenin (pictured below), Leon Trotsky and others.
Widespread unrest had been building in Russia for more than a year, fuelled by the country’s heavy losses in the First World War and the hardships endured by its people as part of the war effort. While most Russians lived in abject poverty, struggling to feed their families, the ruling Tsar and his family lived in opulent splendour, while the officials of his corrupt government also enjoyed privileged lives.
It was a recipe for revolution, with the first uprisings seen in March 1917 in Petrograd (now St Petersburg). Although narrowly suppressed, they forced the Tsar to give up outright power in favour of a new imperial government. It was only a small concession, resulting in an uneasy peace that would be short-lived.
By October, dissatisfaction with the new government, which was dominated by aristocrats and noblemen, was reaching boiling point, especially after it resolved to continue the costly and unpopular war with Germany. By contrast the Bolsheviks (meaning ‘Ones of the Majority’) called for an immediate end to the war and had gained widespread popular support among the urban working class, rural peasants and the rank and file of the armed forces.
Sensing the time for action was near, on November 5th the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee voted 10 to 2 in favour of a resolution stating that and armed uprising was now inevitable and the time for it was “fully ripe”. Hasty preparations were made and two days later, on November 7th, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd – at that time the Russian capital – made their move.
Their armed forces, the so-called ‘Red Guards’, systematically captured key government facilities, transport hubs and communication centres, meeting little resistance. The crews of five destroyers arriving at Petrograd’s harbour declared their allegiance to the Bolsheviks and other sections of the military began to follow suit, joining the revolution rather than opposing it.
The day’s final and decisive assault was against the Winter Palace, home to the Tsar and headquarters to his imperial government. The Bolsheviks had planned for a hard fight, but it wasn’t to be. Instead they found the palace poorly guarded by around 3,000 military cadets, female soldiers and small numbers of officers and Cossacks.
The Bolsheviks’ assault was delayed while they gathered their forces and searched for working artillery, but in the meantime a large number of cadets willingly abandoned the palace, followed less than two hours later by more than 200 Cossacks, who returned to their barracks without firing a shot. As the government inside the palace debated what action to take, it soon became clear there was only one course of action open to them – complete surrender.
At 9-45pm a cruiser in the harbour fired a blank shot to signal that the Winter Palace was in Bolshevik hands. The fears of a hard-fought battle had not been realised and instead it had been a ‘bloodless coup’, meeting only feeble and half-hearted resistance which quickly collapsed.
It had been a day which would significantly alter the course of Russian history. By nightfall, Bolshevik leader Lenin had already issued a proclamation “To the Citizens of Russia”, transmitted by telegram throughout the country. It told of the downfall of the government and urged all ordinary Russians to seize the moment and join the revolution.
Over the coming weeks and months, towns and cities across Russia declared their backing for the Bolsheviks, with government officials relinquishing their powers or fleeing in fear. Even those military officers still loyal to the Tsar could do nothing, as the troops they commanded were largely pro-Bolshevik.
Confusingly, it is remembered in Russia as the “October Revolution” or simply “Red October”, as under the country’s old calendar the day the Winter Palace fell was October 25th. But it was November 7th for most of the rest of Europe, which used the Gregorian calendar. Whichever date is ascribed to it, it happened 100 years ago today.