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Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution
Country Study > Chapter 2 > Historical Setting: 1917 to 1991 > Revolutions and Civil War > The Bolshevik Revolution

THE BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION


Although the Provisional Government survived the Kornilov revolt, popular support for the government faded rapidly as the national mood swung to the left in the fall of 1917. Workers took control of their factories through elected committees; peasants expropriated lands belonging to the state, church, nobility, and gentry; and armies melted away as peasant soldiers deserted to take part in the land seizures. The Bolsheviks, skillfully exploiting these popular trends in their propaganda, achieved domination of the Petrograd and Moscow soviets by September. Trotsky, freed from prison after the Kornilov revolt, was recruited as a Bolshevik and named chairman of the Petrograd Soviet.

Realizing that the time was ripe to seize power by force, Lenin returned to Petrograd in October and convinced a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee, which had hoped to take power legally, to accept armed uprising in principle. Trotsky won the Petrograd garrison over to the soviet, depriving the Provisional Government of its main military support in Petrograd.

The actual insurrection -- the Bolshevik Revolution -- began on November 6, when Kerenskiy ordered the Bolshevik press closed. Interpreting this action as a counterrevolutionary move, the Bolsheviks called on their supporters to defend the Petrograd Soviet. By evening, the Bolsheviks had taken control of utilities and most government buildings in Petrograd, thus enabling Lenin to proclaim the downfall of the Provisional Government on the morning of the next day, November 7. The Bolsheviks captured the Provisional Government's cabinet at its Winter Palace headquarters that night with hardly a shot fired in the government's defense. Kerenskiy left Petrograd to organize resistance, but his countercoup failed and he fled Russia. Bolshevik uprisings soon took place elsewhere; Moscow was under Bolshevik control within three weeks. The Second Congress of Soviets met in Petrograd to ratify the Bolshevik takeover after moderate deputies (mainly Mensheviks and right-wing members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party) quit the session. The remaining Bolsheviks and left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries declared the soviets the governing bodies of Russia and named the Council of People's Commissars (Sovet narodnykh kommissarov -- Sovnarkom) to serve as the cabinet. Lenin became chairman of this council. Trotsky took the post of commissar of foreign affairs; Stalin, a Georgian, became commissar of nationalities. Thus, by acting decisively while their opponents vacillated, the Bolsheviks succeeded in effecting their coup d'├ętat.

On coming to power, the Bolsheviks issued a series of revolutionary decrees ratifying peasants' seizures of land and workers' control of industries, abolished laws sanctioning class privileges, nationalized the banks, and set up revolutionary tribunals in place of the courts. At the same time, the revolutionaries now constituting the regime worked to secure power inside and outside the government. Deeming Western forms of parliamentary democracy irrelevant, Lenin argued for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" based on single-party Bolshevik rule, although for a time left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries also participated in the Sovnarkom. The new government created a secret police agency, the VChK (commonly known as the Cheka), to persecute enemies of the state (including bourgeois liberals and moderate socialists). Having convened the Constituent Assembly, which finally had been elected in November with the Bolsheviks winning only a quarter of the seats, the Soviet government dissolved the assembly in January after a one-day session, ending a short-lived experiment in parliamentary democracy.

In foreign affairs, the Soviet government, seeking to disengage Russia from World War I, called on the belligerent powers for an armistice and peace without annexations. The Allied Powers rejected this appeal, but Germany and its allies agreed to a cease-fire. Negotiations began in December 1917. After dictating harsh terms that the Soviet government would not accept, however, Germany resumed its offensive in February 1918, meeting scant resistance from disintegrating Russian armies. Lenin, after bitter debate with leading Bolsheviks who favored prolonging the war in hopes of precipitating class warfare in Germany, persuaded a slim majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee that peace must be made at any cost. On March 3, Soviet government officials signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, relinquishing Poland, the Baltic lands, Finland, and Ukraine to German control and giving up a portion of the Caucasus region to Turkey. With the new border dangerously close to Petrograd, the government was soon transferred to Moscow. An enormous part of the population and resources of the Russian Empire was lost by this treaty, but Lenin understood that no other alternative could ensure the survival of the fledgling Soviet state.

Data as of July 1996




Last Updated: July 1996


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Russia was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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