Russian Revolutions of 1917

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By 1917, Russia was ripe for revolution and change was in the air. Industrialization had created a growing industrial workforce that labored for low pay in often-terrible conditions and mostly lived in urban slums. The new middle class and "educated society" wanted greater legal rights and participation in affairs of state. The peasantry still hungered for that portion of the land they had not received in the emancipation from serfdom. Signs of restiveness could be detected among the half of the population who were not ethnic Russians. The Revolution of 1905 and the reforms that followed had failed to resolve the serious problems confronting the country. Revolutionary movements had waxed and waned since the 1860s, and new and better organized ones had emerged in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Russia's quasi-autocratic political system, and especially Nicholas II's clinging to the outdated notion of himself as god-given autocrat ruling over loyal subjects, was more and more an anachronism. To make matters worse, Nicholas was a far from capable ruler. The disasters of World War I, with its huge losses of men and dislocation of the economy, magnified all of Russia's problems. Whether revolution, especially one such as what followed, was inevitable remains a debatable issue, but clearly the conditions were present by the opening of 1917: incompetent government, a discredited and obstinate monarch, alienation of educated society, deteriorating economic conditions, a revival of social-economic tensions and industrial strikes, an extreme war-weariness, resentful soldiers, and a revival of activity by revolutionary parties. The sense that something had to break soon was widespread.


Among the many sources of discontent in Russian society as 1917 opened, the first stage of the Russian Revolution, the February Revolution, developed out of a wave of industrial strikes in Petrograd in January and February. (Petrograd, formerly St. Petersburg, was the capital at the time.) These turned toward actual revolution when, on 23 February, "Women's Day," female workers at a few factories, angered by food shortages on top of their already difficult economic situation and general discontent, marched out from their factories demanding "bread." They called on men at nearby factories to join them. The next two days more and more factories joined the demonstrations, until it included most of the industrial workforce in the capital. Students and broad sections of the urban lower and middle classes joined the antigovernment demonstrations on the twenty-fifth. Soldiers called out to help break up demonstrations acted with reluctance. On 26 February the government ordered troops to fire into the crowds. Dismayed by the shooting on the twenty-sixth, one detachment, when ordered to form up again on the morning of 27 February, revolted. This quickly spread to other regiments. By midday the government lost control of the means of armed coercion and quickly collapsed.

To this point the revolution had been mainly a popular revolt, with little leadership beyond what came from factory-level activists and isolated individuals who emerged as organizers of factory demonstrations or leaders in attacks on police stations and other symbols of authority. The revolutionary parties, whose main leaders were in exile, had played little leadership role during the February demonstrations. Now, however, significant political leadership was necessary to consolidate the revolution that had taken place in the streets. Two groups stepped forward late on the 27 February to play this role. One was a group of mostly liberal and moderate conservative political leaders in the State Duma (a legislative assembly elected on a limited franchise based mainly on wealth). They were concerned about the uprising's implications for the war effort, but also realized that this might offer the opportunity to force Nicholas to reform the political system. During the evening of the twenty-seventh they proclaimed the formation of a "Temporary Committee of the State Duma," which would assume governmental responsibility in Petrograd. They undertook to secure the revolution as an opportunity to limit Nicholas's authority while containing the revolution's radicalism. At the same time, a multiparty group of socialist intellectuals met at the Duma building and led workers and soldiers in the formation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. This was a more avowedly revolutionary body, committed to turning the street revolt into a sweeping social and economic as well as political revolution.

The Duma Committee and the Petrograd Soviet leaders immediately, if warily, began to cooperate to consolidate the February Revolution and form a new government. On 1 March came news of support for the revolution in Moscow and other cities and increased demand for Nicholas's abdication. On 2 March the Duma and Soviet negotiators announced formation of a "Provisional Government" that would govern Russia until a new governmental system could be created by a Constituent Assembly, which was to be elected by universal franchise. The same day Nicholas II gave way to the reality of events and to the pressures from his army commanders, and abdicated.

The new government was drawn primarily from the liberal political leadership of the country. Its head, as minister-president, was Prince Georgy Lvov, a well-known liberal. Politically it was dominated by the Constitutional Democratic Party (the Kadets), the main liberal party. An offer to the Petrograd Soviet to have well-known socialist Duma members join was turned down, but one, Alexander Kerensky, the popular hero of the February Revolution, joined anyway. He soon became the government's most prominent member. The Petrograd Soviet leaders promised to support the new government insofar as it pursued policies of which they approved. Although the Duma soon faded as an important political institution, the existence of the Petrograd Soviet alongside the Provisional Government robbed the latter of much of its actual authority, giving rise to what quickly was dubbed "dual power" (dvoevlastie). In this the government had the generally recognized official authority and responsibility but not the effective power, while the Soviet had the actual power and popular authority but not responsibility for governing. This was because the Soviet commanded the primary loyalty of the industrial workers and garrison soldiers, the main bases of power in Petrograd. Moreover, a similar situation developed in the cities across the country, where new city governments, drawn primarily from liberal educated society, replaced the old government authorities, while alongside them local soviets of workers and soldiers deputies sprang up and wielded real power.

The new political structure was very unstable, but during March and April its contours became clearer as a fundamental political realignment took place. Central to this was the emergence of three broad political blocs that were in many ways more important than traditional parties: liberals (including almost all nonsocialists), moderate socialists, and radical left socialists. The liberals (most importantly the Kadets) dominated the Provisional Government at first and then shared power therein with the moderate socialists from May to October. The moderate socialists—the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary (SR) parties predominantly—controlled the Petrograd and most other soviets around the country and became increasingly influential in the government. The radical left—Bolsheviks, left-wing Mensheviks and SRs, and anarchists—were at first a small, minority voice, but soon grew as the liberals and moderate socialists failed to satisfy popular aspirations. Monarchist and truly conservative political parties, the old right wing of Russian politics, were largely swept away by the revolution and played little role in 1917.

Within this political realignment, the authority of the Soviet and the overwhelming popular identification with the socialist parties meant that the political future of the revolution hinged on the outcome of struggles for influence among the socialist parties and within the Soviet. Two political leaders returning from exile with fundamentally different programs of revolutionary action, Irakli Tsereteli and Vladimir Lenin, drove the political realignment among the socialists and the development of Soviet policies.

Tsereteli, a Georgian Menshevik, returned from Siberian exile on 20 March and headed a group that forged the Menshevik-SR led bloc of moderate socialists under the banner of "Revolutionary Defensism." The key to the Revolutionary Defensist bloc's identity and success was the peace issue. The revolution had released a pent-up demand for an end to the suffering of the war. The Revolutionary Defensists developed a program calling for vigorous efforts to end the war by negotiations among the warring powers on the basis of a "peace without annexations or indemnities," defense of the country and the revolution until then, and cooperation with the government to achieve this. This policy, which repudiated the previous policy of war to victory, spoke not only to the broad popular desire to end the war but also to the unwillingness to suffer a defeat and possible German domination. From April to September the Revolutionary Defensists dominated the Petrograd Soviet, and most local soviets in other cities until then or later. In May they entered the Provisional Government and supported "coalition government," that is, one based on a centrist alliance of moderate socialists and liberals, which formed the various cabinets of the Provisional Government from May until the October Revolution.

The radical left was ill defined, disorganized, and lacking strong leadership until the return of major political leaders, mostly from abroad. These included Lenin of the Bolsheviks as well as some prominent Mensheviks and SRs, who quickly formed radical left wings of those parties in opposition to the dominant moderate wings. Lenin in particular galvanized the radical left. On his return to Russia on 3 April, he electrified politics with his "April Theses." He denounced all cooperation with the Provisional Government, criticized the moderate socialist leaders of the Soviet, and called for rapid movement toward a new, more radical revolution. The radicals and Bolsheviks pressed for more rapid and more sweeping social and economic reforms, demanded more vigorous efforts to end the war, criticized the policies of the coalition government and Soviet leadership, and increasingly called for the Provisional Government's replacement by a socialist government based on the soviets. The Bolsheviks were the most strident, but the left SRs, left Mensheviks, anarchists, and others were a key part of the radical left bloc. Initially the radical left's extremism was out of keeping with the mood of optimism following the overthrow of the autocracy. Their opposition stance, however, positioned these parties and groups to become the beneficiary of any failures of the government and Soviet leadership to solve the many problems facing the country.

The first crisis of the new political system, the "April Crisis" (18–21 April), arose over the war. Pavel N. Milyukov, the Kadet leader and new foreign minister, took the position that Russia's national interests transcended the revolution and required that Russia continue the war to a complete victory. The socialists in the Soviet, however, attacked this policy, demanding that Russia find a way to end the war. Tsereteli's Revolutionary Defensism provided a seemingly viable, and very popular, way to do so. Milyukov's attempts to defend a policy of war to victory led to massive antigovernment street demonstrations. The April Crisis clearly showed the preponderant power of the Soviet and the need to restructure the government to reflect that. This took place on 5 May when Milyukov and some other liberals were replaced by several of the leading members of the Soviet in the first "coalition government" of liberals and moderate socialists.


The formation of the coalition government heightened the expectations of the population that the revolution would fulfill their aspirations. The February Revolution released the pent-up frustrations and aspirations of the population, which vigorously put forward what they expected from the revolution. The Provisional Government instituted important and far-reaching reforms, especially in civil rights and individual and group freedoms, but was confronted by long lists of popular demands that went far beyond those. These demands would be difficult to meet under the best of circumstances, which 1917 was not. The industrial workers, who had begun the revolution, demanded increased wages, an eight-hour day, better working conditions, dignity as individuals, an end to the war, and other aspirations. Soldiers demanded and implemented fundamental changes in the conditions of military service, and then became the most ardent opponents of continuing the war. Peasants laid claim to the land and greater control over their lives and villages. The educated middle classes looked forward to expanded civil rights and a society based on the rule of law. Women demonstrated for the right to vote and better access to education and professions. National minorities demanded expanded use of their language, respect for cultural practices, and political autonomy within a federal state. Hundreds of groups—soldiers' wives, medical assistants, apartment residents' associations, over-age soldiers, and other "groups" large and small—expected the government to address their needs and hopes. For all inhabitants of the Russian state, of whatever class, gender, ethnicity, occupation, or other attribute, the revolution stood for the opening of a new era and a better future, and they expected the new political leadership to deliver that.

Moreover, the people of the Russian Empire quickly organized to fulfill their aspirations. Within a few weeks they created a vast array of organizations for self-assertion: thousands of factory committees, army committees, village assemblies, Red Guards, unions, nationality-based parties, ethnic and religious organizations, cultural and educational clubs, women's and youth organizations, officers' and industrialists' associations, householders' associations, economic cooperatives, and others. These many organizations and the continuous meetings represented genuinely popular movements and gave form to the hopes and aspirations of the peoples of the empire. The interrelationship of the political parties and these many organizations, especially the more powerful ones such as factory and soldiers' committees, was a key issue of the revolution. Political leaders struggled to garner the popular support of these organizations, while the populace and their organizations, selecting from a rich buffet of political, social, economic, and cultural ideas, searched for leadership that could articulate and fulfill their aspirations. Unmet aspirations drove the revolution leftward throughout 1917 as the population sought new leaders—local and central—who would fulfill their goals. Recognizing the role of these aspirations and the activities and significance of the new organizations, and how those linked up to political movements, is essential to understanding the development of the revolution. Without them, the activities of "high politics" and leaders make little sense.

Popular aspirations and attitudes were reflected in the powerful language and symbolism that developed immediately after the February Revolution. Words such as democracy and republic were powerful positive terms, marking off political and social boundaries, whereas the bourgeoisie and counterrevolutionary had similar but negative force. The language of class was particularly powerful because it both defined important identities and united—or separated off—large groups and could be used to mobilize them politically. Streets, places, and objects were given revolutionary names to replace ones with tsarist connotations. Revolutionary songs accompanied most public activity in 1917. Visually, not only were tsarist emblems torn down and destroyed, but also new ones took their place. Red, the color of revolution since the nineteenth century in Europe, was omnipresent in banners, cockades, armbands, ribbons in buttonholes or pinned to garments, and elsewhere. Street demonstrations and marches became part of daily life. The new revolutionary vocabulary, ideas, symbols, and marches came together in the "festivals of freedom" that were so popular in the early months. Moreover, a universal meaning was assigned to the revolution. Almost the entire political spectrum held that the revolution was not merely a Russian event, but one that would exercise great influence across Europe and the globe, in the manner of the French Revolution of 1789. Lenin's belief that the revolution was the beginning of worldwide socialist revolution was only the most extreme form of a commonly held faith that the revolution would change both Russia and the world.

The liberal and Revolutionary Defensist (moderate socialists) political alliance that controlled the Provisional Government after April found it impossible to meet the many, often conflicting, aspirations of the population, and the general optimism of spring gave way to a summer of discontents. First and especially pressing, the coalition not only failed to find a way to end the war but also decided to launch a military offensive in June that was unpopular from the beginning and soon turned into a devastating defeat. War, worsening economic conditions, industrial conflict, rising crime and public disorders, rural discontent over land distribution, and unfulfilled aspirations fueled a demand for "All Power to the Soviets." On the surface this meant simply that an all-socialist government based on the Petrograd Soviet or a congress of soviets should replace the Provisional Government. Underlying it, however, was a demand for a government that unequivocally advanced the interests of the worker, peasant, and soldier masses against the "bourgeoisie" and privileged society, one that would rapidly carry out radical social and economic reforms and end the war. Workers, soldiers, and others turned toward arguments that stressed that they could achieve peace and fulfill their economic and other aspirations only through a new revolution that would produce a radically different government more attuned to their needs.

The demand for Soviet power and the underlying frustrations of the workers and soldiers burst loose with the tumultuous disorders usually called the "July Days" or the "July Uprising." Some units of the Petrograd garrison—which consisted primarily of troops training as replacements for the front—had become increasingly discontented with the policies of the government and bitterly opposed the new military offensive. Their discontent coincided with growing restiveness in nearby factories. The two sets of discontents interacted with each other and exploded the evening of 3 July. Soldiers and workers, encouraged by anarchist, Left SR, and Bolshevik factory activists, now undertook to force political change. In the early evening, workers from several factories and soldiers of the First Machine Gun Regiment took to the streets chanting "All Power to the Soviets" and other radical slogans. By midnight tens of thousands of workers and soldiers had assembled at Soviet headquarters, where they angrily demanded the transfer of all power to the Soviet. The Revolutionary Defensist leadership of the Soviet refused, and the demonstrations temporarily broke up between and three and four a.m. on 4 July.

The Bolshevik party leadership had not planned or authorized the demonstrations, contrary to an enduring myth that they did so as part of a calculated attempt to seize power. Lower-level Bolshevik activists, however, had been prominent among those radicals whipping up popular discontent and the demand for Soviet power. Finally, in the early morning hours of 4 July, faced with the fact of massive demonstrations and demands from their supporters for action, the Bolsheviks' Central Committee (without Lenin, who was vacationing in Finland) announced its willingness to support and lead "a peaceful demonstration" in support of an all-socialist government based on the Soviet. Hardly had it done so and Lenin returned, however, than the demonstrations floundered. The unwillingness of the Petrograd Soviet's Revolutionary Defensist leaders to take power, news that troops from the front were arriving to support the Soviet leaders and government, and a sensational release of documents purporting (falsely) to show that the Bolshevik leaders were German agents, combined to deflate the demonstrations. By 5 July they were over. There was a temporary reaction against the Bolsheviks and radical left. The government ordered the arrest of Lenin and some others, who fled into hiding, where Lenin stayed until the October Revolution.

A peculiar situation developed after the July Days in which the newspaper headlines and political leaders spoke of a conservative reaction, even a possible military dictator, whereas the events of daily life printed on the inside pages revealed a steady radicalization of the population. The latter was conveyed both in news articles about the radical left bloc's capture of one worker or soldier committee and organization after another in reelections, and in the general popular discontent revealed in other stories. The question of land distribution remained a major source of dissatisfaction, among both peasants and soldiers, and rural violence continued. A general economic disintegration coupled with inflation made workers fear the loss of gains made thus far and fueled industrial conflict. Economic crisis brought hardship to everyone, especially the urban masses, as necessary goods became unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Fears grew about adequate food provisions for the cities and the army. On 10 August there was only enough bread reserve in Petrograd for two days, among other signs of shortages. Separatist movements in some of the national minority regions gained momentum. There was a dramatic increase in crime and public disorders. Society appeared to be disintegrating and life increasingly insecure. The government and the Revolutionary Defensist leaders of the Soviet seemed unable to meet people's basic needs, much less fulfill their aspirations for improvements.

Governmental instability and frequent reorganization added to these problems. The original cabinet of the Provisional Government had been replaced by the first "coalition" on 5 May, still under Prince Lvov. On 2 July this government resigned, and it took until 23 July to complete formation of a new one under Kerensky's leadership. Talk of this cabinet's replacement immediately filled the newspapers. Some conservatives began to look for a military man, "the Napoleon of the Russian Revolution," to accomplish a "restoration of order." Attention increasingly settled on General Lavr Kornilov, the newly appointed commander of the armies. Kornilov and Kerensky shared an apprehension about the growing signs of disintegration and the growing popularity of the radical left, and both agreed on the need for "order," including restructuring the government again and somehow reducing the influence of the Petrograd Soviet. The two did not trust each other, however, and Kerensky became convinced that Kornilov was planning a coup d'état against him and hastily dismissed Kornilov as army commander on 27 August. Kornilov, outraged, flung a small military force against Petrograd. His attack quickly collapsed, and with it the short-lived drive for "order." Kerensky's government also collapsed, ushering in nearly a month of renewed governmental crisis.

The Kornilov affair, with its threat of counterrevolution, crystallized all the discontents and fears of the mass of the population into an even more insistent demand for Soviet power. The main beneficiaries of this were the radical parties, especially the Bolsheviks. They had been gaining influence and support in August as they criticized the government and Revolutionary Defensists leaders of the Soviet for their failure to end the war and meet other popular aspirations. The Kornilov fiasco catapulted a Bolshevik-led radical Left coalition into control of the Petrograd Soviet, the main bastion of revolutionary authority, and also into the leadership of the Moscow and many other city soviets and of workers' and soldiers' organizations. It is worth stressing that the Bolsheviks and their allies, primarily the Left SRs, won control of these soviets through elections, as moderate deputies either became radicalized and switched parties or were replaced by their factory and army electors with more radical spokesmen. This popular support was genuine and essential to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, a fact often lost sight of because of the later Bolshevik dictatorship.

By mid-September, the question was not whether the Provisional Government (now in its fourth incarnation) would be replaced again, but how and by whom and in what manner. Ever larger segments of the political elite as well as the general population believed that the time had come for some type of new, all-socialist, government. This came close to implementation by agreement among socialist party leaders in late September, but failed. The question, however, would not go away, and by October attention began to focus on the forthcoming Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets (a congress of delegates from soviets across the country) as the vehicle for creating such a government. Given the often-stated calls of the Bolsheviks and their allies for the soviets to take power, the question now was not so much would they attempt to replace the Provisional Government by the Congress of Soviets, but instead centered around the details. Exactly how would it happen? What would be the exact nature of the new government? To what extent and how successfully might Kerensky's government resist? Would this spark civil war?


"What are the Bolsheviks planning to do?" That was the question debated on street corners, in newspapers, and in public meetings during October. This question tormented Lenin as well. From his Finnish hiding place—an order for his arrest dating from the July Days still existed—Lenin feared that the Bolsheviks would do too little, too late. He already had turned away from any idea of cooperation with the moderate socialists in some kind of shared Soviet power. Ignoring the debates going on in Petrograd about what kind of broad socialist government to form, Lenin shifted to a strident call for an immediate armed seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. Lenin believed that the fall of 1917 offered a unique opportunity for a radical restructuring of political power and for a man such as himself.

Lenin's call divided the party leadership. A minority supported Lenin's call to arms. Another group, led by Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, two of the most important Bolshevik leaders, urged caution and favored a broad coalition of socialists in a democratic left government, probably created at theConstituent Assembly (elections having been scheduled for November). An intermediate position, increasingly identified with Leon Trotsky and probably representing a majority of the party's leadership, looked to the forthcoming Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets as the vehicle for the transfer of power. They expected that the Bolsheviks and other parties supporting Soviet power would have a majority at the congress, and the congress could then declare the transfer of power to itself. Although this itself would be a revolutionary move, they believed that Kerensky's government would be unable to resist. Despite Lenin's demands, therefore, the party's political efforts focused on the forthcoming Congress of Soviets and the selection of deputies to the congress who would support a transfer of power.

Frustrated and fearing that an irretrievable opportunity was slipping by, Lenin took the chance of moving from Finland to the outskirts of Petrograd. On 10 October he met, for the first time since July, with the Central Committee of the party. After an all-night debate the Central Committee seemingly gave in to Lenin's passionate demands for a seizure of power. It passed a resolution stating that an "armed uprising" was "the order of the day." This resolution later became central to the myth of a carefully planned seizure of power carried out under Lenin's direction. It was, in fact, something different and more complex than that. First of all, it did not set any timetable or plan for a seizure of power. Rather, the resolution was a formal reversion of Bolshevik party policy to the idea that an armed uprising was a revolutionary necessity, but did not commit the party to a seizure of power before the Congress of Soviets or at any other specific time or by any specific means. Nor did it start actual preparations for a seizure of power, as many within the Bolshevik leadership pointed out in discussions in the following days. Despite Lenin's bullying, the party leadership continued to focus on the Congress of Soviets as the time, place, and vehicle for the transfer of power. This would be the new "revolution" called for in the Bolshevik resolution of 10 October as well as in hundreds of local workers' and soldiers' resolutions for "All Power to the Soviets." The Bolsheviks' Left SR allies also were aiming at the congress to take power and form an all-socialist government.

At this point Lenin was the recipient of a series of unforeseeable lucky breaks that made possible the violent seizure of power that he wanted and gave rise to the durable myth of a secretly and well-planned Bolshevik coup d'état. First, on 18 October the moderate socialists decided to postpone the opening of the Congress of Soviets from the twentieth to the twenty-fifth. This was momentous, because the Bolsheviks were totally unprepared for and could not have attempted any seizure of power before the twentieth even if they wished. The five extra days changed everything; 20–24 October were days of furious public debate over numerous issues (preparation to send garrison troops to the front, the danger of a German invasion, moving the capital to Moscow, the severe economic and food crisis, factory closings, the instability of the government, etc.). These issues had Petrograd in turmoil. Moreover, because a declaration of the transfer of power at the Congress of Soviets, however much expected, would after all be an insurrectionary action that Kerensky presumably would resist, both sides undertook during these days to mobilize supporters. Bolsheviks and Left SRs worked successfully to secure the support of the volatile soldiers of the garrison for "Soviet power," thus destroying any ability of the government to use its soldiers against the seizure of power by the Congress of Soviets.

The October Revolution actually began in response neither to any plan of Lenin's nor to any act by the Congress of Soviets, but because of an action by Kerensky, which proved to be Lenin's second lucky break. The government, apprehensive over the rising demand for Soviet power and Bolshevik influence, decided on a minor strike against the Bolsheviks. During the predawn hours of 24 October, the government sent military cadets to close down two Bolshevik newspapers. The alarmed newspapermen ran to Soviet headquarters, where Soviet leaders declared that counterrevolution had again reared its head and called on soldiers and armed workers to defend the Soviet and the revolution and guarantee the opening of the Congress of Soviets the next day. Their posture was basically defensive. Throughout 24 October, pro-government and pro-Soviet forces engaged in a series of confused and uncoordinated confrontations for control of key buildings and the bridges over the rivers. The pro-Soviet forces had the greater numbers, morale, and determination—nobody wanted to die for the Provisional Government—and by midnight they controlled most of the city, with almost no shooting.

At this point the character of events changed. Lenin, who had been hiding the past few days on the edge of the city and was unable to have much influence on events, on hearing accounts of the events in the city made his way to the Soviet headquarters after midnight. Lenin now pressed the Soviet leaders to offensive action. Around midmorning on 25 October he wrote a proclamation declaring the Provisional Government overthrown, which was quickly printed and distributed through the city. Lenin had, against all odds and logic, achieved his goal of an armed seizure of power before the congress, but he got it because of Kerensky's ill-considered action, not because of the implementation of a Bolshevik plan for an armed seizure of power.

Attention now shifted to the Congress of Soviets, which opened at 10:40 the evening of 25 October. The congress, as expected, had a majority in favor of Soviet power. The Bolsheviks, although the largest party, were not a majority and had to rely on the Left SRs and others to form a majority. Everything was in place for creating a multiparty, all-socialist government, what "Soviet power" had meant throughout 1917, and the first motions and speeches pointed in that direction. Suddenly, at this point Lenin received yet another unpredictable stoke of good luck: the moderate socialist SRs and Mensheviks denounced the Bolsheviks and walked out. This left the Bolsheviks with an absolute majority and in full control of the congress, which proceeded to declare the Provisional Government overthrown and all power to rest in its own hands. Lenin had his full seizure of power and an all-Bolshevik government.

In recognizing the unpredictable strokes of luck, or opportunities if one prefers, that came Lenin's way during October, one should not draw the conclusion that this was all an accident. The October Revolution was a complex mixture of the actions of individuals, of powerful long-term political and social forces moving toward a radical government of some type, and of unpredictable events of the moment, which combined to shape its specific form and outcome. The nature of the October Revolution should serve as a reminder of the complexity of history, of the intermingling of long-term "causes," chance of the moment, and even personal will.


The Russian Revolution did not end with the "October Revolution." Indeed, many in October 1917 saw it as merely another political crisis, punctuated with the usual street disorders, producing yet another "provisional" government (a term the new government in fact used at first). Instead, the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly on 6 January 1918 is a better point to take as the end of the revolution in the precise usage of the term and the transition to civil war. During the period from 25 October to 6 January, Lenin successfully turned a revolution for Soviet power into Bolshevik power, while pushing the country into civil war and the new regime toward dictatorship.

The immense popularity of the idea of Soviet power allowed the new Bolshevik government to consolidate its power during the following weeks. It was able to defeat an attempt by Kerensky to use troops from the front to regain power, it overcame a serious effort during the first week after the October Revolution to force it to share political power through formation of a broad multiparty socialist government, and it witnessed the successful spread of "Soviet power" across much of Russia as local soviets opted for support of the new Soviet regime. At the same time, Lenin and Trotsky worked to polarize political opinion and to strengthen the Bolshevik hold on power. They did this in part through swift movement to meet popular aspirations by a decree distributing land to the peasants, by an armistice with Germany, by extension of workers' authority in management of factories, and by other measures. They brought some Left SRs into the government as junior partners, thus broadening slightly their political base while retaining Bolshevik domination of the government. They also tightened control through press censorship, the formation of the Cheka (political police), repressive measures against the Kadet Party, and other actions to suppress opposition.

The final act in marking the end of the revolution and the onset of civil war was the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. The elections to the Constituent Assembly and its forthcoming convocation kept alive not only the notion of a future broad multiparty socialist government, but also a sense that Lenin's government was only another temporary—provisional—government. This muted early opposition to the new government, but also presented Lenin and the radical left with a great dilemma. As predicted, the elections in November gave the SRs a majority that, however unstable, would control the Constituent Assembly when it opened on 5 January 1918. Any government coming out of the assembly would be a coalition, probably the broad socialist coalition that the slogan "All Power to the Soviets" originally was thought to mean. Accepting the authority of the elections and the Constituent Assembly meant yielding power, and this Lenin was unwilling to do. His unwillingness led the Bolsheviks and Left SRs to prepare action against the assembly. This came on 6 January when Lenin shut down the Constituent Assembly by force after only one meeting. Its dispersal was not essential for maintenance of a socialist government, or even "Soviet power," but it was necessary if Lenin and the Bolsheviks were to hold power and for such a radical government as they envisioned.

By closing the Constituent Assembly, Lenin ended the possibility of the Russian Revolution playing itself out in the political arena. With that closed, his opponents had no recourse but to arms, and civil war now replaced the political and social revolution of 1917. The decision also drove the Bolsheviks further down the road toward establishing a new dictatorship and destroyed the democratic hopes of the "radiant days of freedom," as one poet had described the optimistic early days of the revolution.


Writing and interpreting the history of the revolution began almost immediately as part of the post-1917 struggles both within the Bolshevik Party and between it and its opponents, domestic and foreign. Ironically, among both Bolsheviks and anti-Bolsheviks, in both the Soviet Union and the West, an overarching interpretation quickly emerged focused on Lenin, the Bolshevik party, ideology, and high politics, largely divorced from the broader political and social context. Despite scattered scholarly works earlier, both a fundamental questioning of the original interpretation and a substantial body of scholarly writing on the revolution emerged only in the late 1960s. The initial new Western scholarship, while still mostly focused on political history, questioned some of the traditional portrayals of a monolithic Bolshevik party and the nature of revolutionary politics and the October Revolution. The historiography of the revolution then expanded rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. Historians began to examine the revolution "from below," and a new "social history" replaced the former focus on ideology, high politics, and Lenin with a new emphasis on social groups and a deepening social polarization that shaped the outcome of the revolution. Scholars also began to produce studies on the provinces and nationality regions as well as more sophisticated histories of political parties. By the 1990s, some scholars began to apply cultural and linguistic approaches to the study of the revolution. In the Soviet Union, although the extreme control of the era of Joseph Stalin relaxed after his death in 1953, scholarship remained handicapped by the need to retain most of the standard interpretation and falsifications set down earlier. The collapse of the Soviet Union finally allowed scholars in Russia and other former Soviet areas to take up the same types and, increasingly, quality of scholarship that had become the norm in the West. At the opening of the twenty-first century, scholars, especially in the West, began to take an interest in placing the revolution within a longer Russian and/or a broader European context. A revived interest in political history, sometimes called "the new political history," situated politics more explicitly within the social and cultural context. The historiography of the Russian Revolution of 1917 remains a vibrant, exciting, but less ideological, field.

See alsoBolshevism; Kadets (Constitutional Democratic Party); Kerensky, Alexander; Lenin, Vladimir; Mensheviks; Nicholas II; Russian Civil War; Trotsky, Leon.


Abramson, Henry. A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917–1920.Cambridge, Mass, 1999. Revolution and civil war in Ukraine with emphasis on the "Jewish Question."

Acton, Edward, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William G. Rosenberg, eds. Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914–1921. Bloomington, Ind., 1997. Outstanding collection of essays by prominent scholars.

Browder, Robert Paul, and Alexander F. Kerensky, eds. The Russian Provisional Government, 1917: Documents. 3 vols. Stanford, Calif., 1961. Excellent collection of documents on the Provisional Government and 1917.

Figes, Orlando. A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924. New York, 1997. Provocative and readable study of the revolutionary period, with special focus on the people rather than political leaders.

Figes, Orlando, and Boris Kolonitskii. Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917. New Haven, Conn., 1999. An intriguing look at the use of language and symbolism in the revolution, especially the cult of Kerensky.

Harding, Neil. Leninism. Durham, N.C., 1996. Stimulating look at Lenin's political thought and its relation to his political activities; compare with Service and White.

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. The February Revolution: Petrograd, 1917. Seattle, Wash., 1981. Best account of the February Revolution.

Hickey, Michael C. "Local Government and State Authority in the Provinces: Smolensk, February–June 1917." Slavic Review 55, no. 4 (1996): 863–881.

——. "The Rise and Fall of Smolensk's Moderate Socialists: The Politics of Class and the Rhetoric of Crisis in 1917." In Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimension of Soviet Power, 1917–1953, edited by Donald J. Raleigh, 14–35. Pittsburgh, Pa., 2001. Hickey's articles on a provincial city are very enlightening about the process of revolution.

Holquist, Peter. Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia's Continuum of Crisis, 1914–1921. Cambridge, Mass., 2002. Stimulating study of continuity and change through the broader upheaval, focusing on the Don Cossack lands.

Keep, John L. H. The Russian Revolution: A Study in Mass Mobilization. London, 1976. Looks especially at the role of various organizations (soviets, factory committees, etc.) and how the Bolsheviks were able use them to gain and then consolidate power in 1917 and early 1918.

Koenker, Diane. Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution. Princeton, N.J., 1981. Excellent study of the revolution in Moscow, focused on the industrial workers.

Koenker, Diane P., and William G. Rosenberg. Strikes and Revolution in Russia, 1917. Princeton, N.J., 1989. Outstanding work on strikes and their political and social impact.

Melancon, Michael. "The Syntax of Soviet Power: The Resolutions of Local Soviets and Other Institutions, March–October 1917." Russian Review 52, no. 4 (1993): 486–505. An account of the political struggles at the local level that raises important issues.

Rabinowitch, Alexander. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. New York, 1976. Reprint, Chicago, 2004. Pathbreaking account of the Bolshevik Party and the events leading up to and including the October Revolution.

Radkey, Oliver H. The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, February to October 1917. New York, 1958. Detailed account of the SR Party during 1917; a later book continues the story into early 1918.

Raleigh, Donald J. Revolution on the Volga: 1917 in Saratov. Ithaca, N.Y., 1986. Excellent study of the revolution through an in-depth examination of an important Russian city and province.

Read, Christopher. From Tsar to Soviets: The Russian People and Their Revolution, 1917–21. New York, 1996. Very good one-volume account of the revolution and civil war.

Rosenberg, William G. Liberals in the Russian Revolution: The Constitutional Democratic Party, 1917–1921. Princeton, N.J., 1974. The standard—and excellent—study of the Kadets in the revolution and civil war.

Sanders, Jonathan. Russia, 1917: The Unpublished Revolution. New York, 1989. The revolution in a fascinating collection of photographs.

Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. London, 2000. Very good; compare to Harding and White.

Smith, S. A. Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917–1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1983. Perhaps the best account of the revolution among the industrial workers of Petrograd.

Steinberg, Mark D. Voices of Revolution, 1917. New Haven, Conn., 2001. Letters and other documents from workers, soldiers, and peasants, with a stimulating introductory essay.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford, Calif., 1993. Outstanding account of the role of nationalism in the revolution and its impact on the end of the Soviet Union, yet brief and readable.

Wade, Rex A. The Russian Search for Peace, February–October 1917. Stanford, Calif., 1969. A study of the interaction of Russian revolutionary politics and World War I.

——. The Russian Revolution, 1917. Cambridge, U.K., 2000; 2nd ed., 2005. Stresses the interaction of social and political currents in producing the revolution's outcome.

Wade, Rex A., ed. Revolutionary Russia: New Approaches. London, 2004. Collection presenting the most recent approaches to writing the history of the revolution.

White, James D. Lenin: The Practice and Theory of Revolution. Houndmills, Basingstoke, U.K., 2001. Good shorter study of Lenin as revolutionary; compare to Harding and Service.

Wildman, Allan K. The End of the Russian Imperial Army. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1980–1987. This two-volume set provides the best, and most detailed, account of the revolution in the army.

Rex A. Wade