Russian Revolution

The October Revolution of 1917

In Apr., 1917, Lenin and other revolutionaries returned to Russia after having been permitted by the German government to cross Germany. The Germans hoped that the Bolsheviks would undermine the Russian war effort. Lenin galvanized the small and theretofore cautious Bolshevik party into action. The courses he advocated were simplified into the powerful slogans "end the war,""all land to the peasants," and "all power to the soviets."

The failure of the all-out military offensive in July increased discontent with the provisional government, and disorders and violence in Petrograd led to popular demands for the soviet to seize power. The Bolsheviks assumed direction of this movement, but the soviet still held back. The government then took strong measures against the Bolshevik press and leaders. Nevertheless, the position of the provisional government was precarious.

Prince Lvov resigned in July because of his opposition to Chernov's cautious attempts at land reform. He was replaced by Kerensky, who formed a coalition cabinet with a socialist majority. Army discipline deteriorated after the failure of the July offensive. The provisional government and the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary leaders in the soviet lost support from the impatient soldiers and workers, who turned to the Bolsheviks.

Although the Bolsheviks were a minority in the first all-Russian congress of soviets (June), they continued to gain influence. Conservative and even some moderate elements, who wished to limit the power of the soviets, rallied around General Kornilov, who attempted (September, N.S./August, O.S.) to seize Petrograd by force. At Kerensky's request, the Bolsheviks and other socialists came to the defense of the provisional government and the attempt was put down. From mid-September on the Bolsheviks had a majority in the Petrograd soviet, and Lenin urged the soviet to seize power.

On the night of Nov. 6 (Oct. 24, O.S.), the Bolsheviks staged an coup, engineered by Trotsky; aided by the workers' Red Guard and the sailors of Kronstadt, they captured the government buildings and the Winter Palace in Petrograd. A second all-Russian congress of soviets met and approved the coup after the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries walked out of the meeting. A cabinet, known as the Council of People's Commissars, was set up with Lenin as chairman, Trotsky as foreign commissar, Rykov as interior commissar, and Stalin as commissar of nationalities. The second congress immediately called for cessation of hostilities, gave private and church lands to village soviets, and abolished private property.

Moscow was soon taken by force, and local groups of Bolshevik workers and soldiers gained control of most of the other cities of Russia. The remaining members of the provisional government were arrested (Kerensky had fled the country). Old marriage and divorce laws were discarded, the church was attacked, workers' control was introduced into the factories, the banks were nationalized, and a supreme economic council was formed to run the economy. The long-promised constituent assembly met in Jan., 1918, but its composition being predominantly non-Bolshevik. it was soon disbanded by Bolshevik troops. The Cheka (political police), directed by Dzerzhinsky, was set up to liquidate the opposition.

Negotiations with the Central powers, which had begun late in 1917, resulted in the Russian acceptance (Mar., 1918) of the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (see Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of). Most of the lands ceded to Germany under the treaty were home to non-Russian nationalities. The ceded lands and Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan had proclaimed their independence from Russia after the Bolshevik coup. Following Germany's defeat by the Allies and the withdrawal of German troops, the Bolsheviks regained some of the lost territory (Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) during the Russian civil war.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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