WWI Centennial: The Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 293rd installment in the series.
November 6-8, 1917: Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds
“The abyss has opened at last,” wrote Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate Socialist politician in Russia’s provisional government. In his diary, he recounted the incredible events of November 6-8, 1917 (October 24-26 in Russia’s old Julian calendar, which is why they’re known as the “October Revolution”) when Lenin’s radical communist Bolsheviks launched a second coup attempt—and succeeded:
Bolshevism has conquered … it was all very simple. The Provisional Government and the first All-Russian Soviet were overthrown as easily as was the Czarist regime. Through their Military Committees of Revolution the Bolsheviki got control of the regiments. Through the Petrograd Workers’ Soviet they became masters of the working classes. These soldiers and Petrograd workmen commandeered all automobiles in the street, occupied the Winter Palace, Petropavlovskaia Fortress, the railway stations, the telephones, and the posts. To destroy the old government and to establish the new required only a bare 24 hours.
As Sorokin’s stunned account suggests, Lenin’s second attempt succeeded where the first had failed, due chiefly to better planning and organization combined with a more favorable—that is, increasingly disastrous—external political and military situation.
Although the July coup attempt failed, it succeeded in raising the Bolsheviks’ profile, adding tens of thousands of new members and giving it leverage on soviets (councils) representing workers and soldiers across Russia, including the main All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Meanwhile, the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky remained weak and discredited by the failure of the summer offensive.
Other events also favored the Bolsheviks: in September 1917, facing General Kornilov’s “counterrevolutionary” coup attempt, Kerensky was forced to release leading Bolsheviks from prison and allow the Bolshevik supporters in the Red Guard to arm themselves in order to suppress the Kornilov Rebellion. Kornilov’s abortive putsch stirred fears of military-led reaction among soldiers who feared the return of Tsarist discipline, further increasing their support for the Bolsheviks, while Kerensky’s clumsy handling of it alienated whatever support he could still claim in conservative and military circles.
In fact, following the mass resignation of his cabinet, Kerensky ruled as the virtual dictator of the Provisional Government. But his position was weak and he failed to crack down on the Bolsheviks, who had the support of other socialists in the Petrograd Soviet. Impressed by Bolshevik commitment to action, and especially calls for peace, workers and peasants were switching their allegiance from the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary Party to Lenin’s party by the thousands. For his part, Lenin, still working in exile, signaled his commitment to political upheaval with his latest theoretical work, State and Revolution, calling for the destruction of the bourgeois state in its entirety.
Then, in October (amid falling voter participation) the Bolsheviks won a majority in the workers’ sections of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, reflecting factory workers’ growing disillusionment with the more moderate socialist parties. This gave them political cover to sideline the Ipsolkom, the moderate socialist leadership chosen by the All-Russian Soviet, in effect creating their own parallel Soviet organization—stacked with their own supporters, of course. The Bolsheviks began convening ad hoc local and regional conferences of Soviets, only inviting pro-Bolshevik representatives to create an appearance of democratic unanimity. The other members of the socialist leadership, Ipsolkom, protested the Bolshevik actions as illegitimate but were powerless to stop them, in part because their supporters were now armed and receiving more overt support from rank-and-file troops.
By this time military discipline had deteriorated sharply, according to Anton Denikin, a former Tsarist commander who would become one of the top “White” counter-revolutionary generals. In September 1917, Denikin described how he and his colleagues narrowly escaped a lynch mob, composed of soldiers who openly debated executing one of Denikin’s fellow officers after he injured a rank-and-file soldier:
The meeting continued. Numerous speakers called for an immediate lynching … The soldier who had been wounded by Lieutenant Kletsando was shouting hysterically and demanding his head … The crowd raged. We, the seven of us, surrounded by a group of cadets, headed by Betling, who marched by my side with drawn sword, entered the narrow passage through this living human sea, which pressed on us from all sides … passing the pools left by yesterday’s rain, the soldiers fill their hands with mud and pelt[ed] us with it. Our faces, eyes, ears, are covered with its fetid, viscid slime. Stones come flying at us. Poor, crippled General Orlov has his face severely bruised; Erdeli and I, as well, were struck—in the back and on the head.
A young Russian officer, Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, later recalled an alarming experience as an aristocratic junior officer trying to travel incognito:
I realized that travelling all by myself, in boxcars filled with all kinds of people, mostly deserters and soldiers, and travelling there in the uniform of an officer was very, very risky. So I had my shoulder epaulettes, showing my rank, detached from my coat. It was an officers’ coat lined with sheepskin that every officer was wearing, and many soldiers had stolen or requisitioned similar coats, and they were all undisciplined—just a crowd all staring at me, trying to guess who I might be. Some suggested that I might be an officer and if so, I should be immediately thrown out of the freight car while the train was moving.
Against this backdrop of growing indiscipline, the Bolsheviks had little trouble convincing disaffected soldiers in the soviets, many who had been demanding peace for months, to support its attempt to overthrow the bourgeois Provisional Government. They were aided in this by the Petrograd Soviet’s panicked decision to create a Revolutionary Committee of Defense when the Germans menaced the capital, which the Bolsheviks immediately suborned and turned to their own ends (ironically while receiving financial support from the German enemy themselves).
By the fall of 1917, Lenin felt confident enough to strike at the Provisional Government directly, using Kerensky’s hollow dictatorship as a foil to rally the support of workers and soldiers with the slogan, “all power to the Soviets!” In late October the Bolsheviks sent out invitations for the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, which would form the Constituent Assembly, but once again only pro-Bolshevik deputies were included. After slipping back into Petrograd in mid-October, Lenin brushed aside objections from fellow Bolsheviks Kamenev and Zinoviev and argued in favor of a coup attempt that would precede the Second Congress of Soviets, hopefully taking their opponents by surprise.
The Bolshevik leadership remained divided over the coup plan until the last minute, with Lenin and Trotsky pressing for an immediate attempt to seize power. The Bolsheviks shouldn’t expect the Second Congress of Soviets to seize power on its own behalf, he reasoned, but instead should present it with a fait accompli, leaving the Congress and the Constituent Assembly to ratify the Bolshevik seizure of power. However, the Bolsheviks were forced to delay the coup repeatedly, ultimately launching it during the Second Congress of Soviets.
In early November the Bolshevik-controlled Revolutionary Committee of Defense sent out 200 commissars, most of them former junior officers who had been imprisoned for sedition, with instructions to rally Bolshevik sympathizers in the Petrograd garrison. A relatively small proportion of the garrison would respond to the call—about 8000 men, or 4 percent of all the troops in the Petrograd area—but this was enough, as the rest of the soldiers, who universally loathed Kerensky’s Provisional Government, opted to stay neutral.
With the Bolsheviks openly preparing for a coup, on the morning of November 6, 1917 Kerensky took belated action to defend the Provisional Government—but received no support from the army’s officer corps, which faulted his treatment of the imprisoned General Kornilov, whom they considered a patriot. Thus Kerensky was forced to order young cadets, a handful of Cossacks, and the “Women’s Battalion of Death” to defend key installations, while also ordering the arrest of the Revolutionary Committee of Defense to no avail. This just gave the Bolsheviks an excuse to proceed with the coup, to defend the Soviet against this “counterrevolutionary conspiracy.”
In Petrograd the coup came off so smoothly that many inhabitants didn’t notice at first. Under the direction of Trotsky acting through the Revolutionary Committee of Defense, soldiers and sailors in Bolshevik-controlled units seized control overnight of almost all the key buildings in Petrograd, including the telephone and telegraph exchanges, military staff headquarters, bridges, railroad stations, and post offices—gathering all of Petrograd’s communications and key transportation facilities in one swoop. Only the Winter Palace held out, with some ministers remaining after Kerensky fled the city in disguise on the morning of November 7, 1917, to beg frontline commanders for help.
The defenders of the Winter Palace held out bravely, forcing back several attempts by Bolshevik forces to capture the remaining government ministers, but at 10 a.m. Lenin went ahead with the proclamation of the seizure of power on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet, along with vague promises of a “democratic peace” and “worker control of production.” Lenin presented the coup as a move on behalf of Russian soldiers and workers, aiming to secure the power of the Soviet won in March 1917—even though it was obviously a Bolshevik coup.
Finally, facing fire from both the neighboring Peter and Paul Fortress as well as the cruiser Aurora, both under Bolshevik control, the last holdouts at the Winter Palace gave up shortly after midnight on November 8. As a furious mob looted the palace, the remaining ministers of the Provisional Government were placed under arrest; Kerensky, still trying to drum up support from the Russian army, was deposed in absentia.
Moderate socialists in the Second Congress of Soviets, including Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, initially denounced the coup, but they were outnumbered by hand-picked Bolshevik delegates and sympathizers from the Left Social Revolutionaries, allowing Lenin to give a democratic veneer to the coup. The Congress of Soviets, in reality a Bolshevik-controlled rump assembly, duly approved his proposals to form a Council of People’s Commissars to run the country until the constituent assembly, immediately begin peace negotiations, and redistribute all commercially owned land. It also voted for a new Soviet leadership, Ipsolkom, which would control the upcoming constituent assembly.
Mayhem in Moscow
Things didn’t go nearly as smoothly in Moscow, Russia’s main industrial city and the center of Russian arms production, where the Provisional Government’s defenders put up a surprisingly stiff resistance from November 7-15 (top, a Bolshevik patrol). Again, young officer cadets played a major role in the defense of the dying liberal regime, this time with more success, while soldiers sympathetic to the Bolsheviks were apparently slower to get involved. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Red Guard member working at a factory in a Moscow suburb, remembered receiving a breathless report from a fellow Bolshevik recently returned from the city, pleading with the soldiers’ council for help:
Sapronov outlined what he had seen on the streets of Moscow and reported that cadets and officers were laying siege to the Moscow Soviet in the mansion of the governor-general and the party committee in the Dresden Hotel. The district was still holding out, thanks to the selfless efforts of several dozen Red Guards, armed with revolvers, but they had neither rifles nor cartridges. He explained that similar street fighting was going on in Petrograd and asked for the soldiers’ help in overcoming the counterrevolutionary forces.
Of course it probably didn’t help that many of the Red Guards, including Dune himself, had never used firearms before:
We young people had never held a weapon in our hands before, and here we were, face to face with a real “cannon.” The long thick rifle was so heavy that we could barely hold it in a horizontal position on our shoulders. It was made still longer by the bayonet-saber. In addition, the several dozen thick cartridges with lead bullets were heavy enough to tear our pockets. As soon as dawn arrived, we resolved to study our weapons and use one cartridge on a test fire.
On November 8, 1917, after a unit sympathetic to the Bolsheviks briefly seized control of the Kremlin, the cadets successfully counterattacked, recapturing the historic fortress the following day. After a short-lived ceasefire, with more pro-Bolshevik troops on hand, on November 12, 1917 the Moscow Revolutionary Committee ordered a new attack, leading to a wave of violence across the city, including fierce fighting from building to building. Despite his lack of familiarity with his weapon, Dune found himself caught up in his first firefight with defenders of the Provisional Government near Lubianka Square, where he also saw his first combat death:
We ran to the other side, under shelter of the building itself, but couldn’t get inside, as this section of the street was under fire from the opposite direction. We had no alternative but to return fire. It was now daylight and we were clearly visible. The only cover we had were the iron posts of the street lamps, so we returned fire from behind them… Soon, seeing the futility of our shooting, I cried to him: “Come on, let’s get away.” It was only then that I noticed he was stretched motionless on the sidewalk, with his rifle lying across his body. While I ran for the nurse, I thought how easy and quietly a man can die, without words or groans. Perhaps he had had a premonition of something painful, for he had been humming a sad and melancholy tune as we were coming on the train, and he had walked along, weary and silent.
Another participant, Anna Litveiko, then a teenager, remembered nursing wounded Bolshevik fighters in the besieged offices of the Moscow Soviet:
All of a sudden there was a loud noise. Shattered glass fell all over the floor, and someone started moaning. Someone else shouted: “We’re being shot at from an armored car!” Everyone rushed down the street. We did, too. Outside, everybody was shooting at an armored car that was standing right in front of the building. There was so much shooting that I was totally confused. I had my Smith & Wesson in my hand… While I was trying to decide where to aim, the armored car fired one last round and quickly disappeared.
The arrival of artillery on the Bolshevik side finally settled the issue, forcing the pro-government Committee of Public Safety to surrender on the afternoon of November 15, 1917. Spared the fate of cities destroyed by the First World War, much of Moscow lay in ruins after the fighting. Dune described the scene in the Moscow telephone exchange, where pro-government defenders had holed up:
When the occupied building had been cleared of all the prisoners, we were told to go around the rooms in search of any people still hiding and to collect weapons and cartridges that had not been handed over. We couldn’t get to the top floor, as the staircase had collapsed after the explosion of the shell. The other floors were intact, but the windows of all the rooms were either smashed or peppered with bullet holes. Under a layer of dust, plaster, and broken glass, the parquet floors no longer shone. Tables and cupboards had been moved from their original places. Apparently people had been sleeping on some of them, for pillows and stacks of paper were piled on them. Everything else—inkwells, pens, pencils, rulers, a lot of clean paper—was strewn on the floor.
The Bolsheviks had triumphed in Petrograd and Moscow, and soon set to work gaining control of local and regional soviets across Russia. But their support outside the big cities was scant, and large parts of the countryside soon descended into quiet anarchy, as peasants appropriated landlord land and waited for the chaos in the cities to pass. Meanwhile Russia was still at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, and despite their calls for immediate peace talks, Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership didn’t have a realistic program for a negotiated settlement (reflecting their hope that the Bolshevik coup would trigger a worldwide communist revolution).
Finally, for ordinary and elite Russians alike, the Bolshevik coup came amid worsening conditions, according to Sorokin, who lamented the situation in Petrograd in the winter of 1917:
Everything is closed, schools, shops, banks, offices. Hunger is everywhere increasing. Kerensky is defeated. The Bolsheviki have taken the banks, state and private, and my former friend Pyatakoff has been made Commissary of Finance. From the front come new tales of horror … Our army is now a wild flying mob which destroys everything that stands in its path. German invasion is inevitable.
It wasn’t long before Lenin’s Bolsheviks showed their true faces, crushing dissent and imprisoning hundreds of “bourgeois” and “liberal” figures without charges. They also moved quickly to stamp out free speech, triggering protests from their Socialist comrades—to no avail. Sorokin himself was forced to go on the run after writing a signed column criticizing the Bolshevik coup:
Invasion of editorial offices and printing plants have become an everyday routine. Bolshevik soldiers destroy copy and even presses. As a matter of form, we obey orders to cease our publications, but they reappear immediately under slightly altered names … Today again I narrowly escaped arrest. As I entered the courtyard of our building a band of persecutors followed me, some going to the office, other remaining at the gate. Fortunately, they did not know me by sight, and as it was dark I lingered outside devising plans of escape.