Russia 1917-18: Revolution for peace, bread and land – counter-revolution’s terror and invasions

After two and a half years of the First World War, Russia exploded in February 1917 in a revolution that overthrew the Tsar’s dictatorship. The capitalist provisional governments that took over did not at all fulfill the expectations of the masses of an end to war, need and oppression. Therefore, in October, an insurrection that shook the world followed. 

The February revolution led to a situation of dual power. On one side were the democratic councils of the working class, the soviets, that had first been created in the revolution in 1905. On the other the provisional government, initially led by prince Lvov, and behind it the capitalists, the generals and the imperialist powers allied to Russia in the war, Britain and France. The majority parties in the soviets, the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, gave support to the this government, arguing it was a bourgeois revolution. 

In April, when Lenin arrived back to Russia, in debates within the Bolsheviks he argued that the dual power could not last. The provisional government would not fulfill the tasks of the revolution but rather paving the way for reaction, by continuing the war, not implementing an land reform or liberate oppressed nations and not solving the crises created by the war. The Russian bourgeoisie would not take the leadership for a bourgeois revolution. Lenin’s position was that the working class must take power, with the support of the oppressed masses on the countryside. The Bolsheviks should “patiently explain” to the working class in order to win mass support. The Bolsheviks raised the banner of peace, bread and land, alongside the slogan “All power to the Soviets”.

The growing impatience of the masses were seen in dramatic events in April and June, in mass protests against new war offensives. In July and August, counter-revolution made its first attacks, sharpest with General Kornilov’s attempted military coup in August that was defeated by the masses with the Bolsheviks at its head. The support of the Bolsheviks grew dramatically, with the party getting majority in the Petrograd soviet in September. The party also won mass support among soldiers and sailors, while on the countryside militant struggles for land intensified. From then, Lenin argued that the Bolshevik’s immediate task was to lead the working class to take power. This role of the Bolshevik party was decisive and a key lesson for all revolutions. 


On 25 October, the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd soviet under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, organised the insurrection, taking power with extremely limited resistance. The October Revolution was confirmed by the Second Soviet Congress, which was gathered in Petrograd the same day. Of the 600 representatives of worker’s councils, soviets, across Russia, 390 supported the Bolsheviks. At the first soviet congress in June, the socialist parties involved in the provisional government, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, had 600 of 832 delegates. 

At 10 o’clock on October 25, the Military Revolutionary Committee proclaimed:

“The Provisional Government has been deposed. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies – the Military Revolutionary Committee, which heads the Petrograd proletariat and the garrison.

“The cause for which the people have fought, namely, the immediate offer of a democratic peace, the abolition of landed proprietorship, workers’ control over production, and the establishment of Soviet power—this cause has been secured. 

“Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants!”

Leon Trotsky, who alongside Lenin led the October revolution, commented on how relatively simple the workers and soldiers were able to take over: “I do not know of another example in history of such a massive revolutionary mass movement conducted without bloodshed.”

Peace and land

The Soviet Congress’s historic decisions were adopted at a high pace. The first decree was about “an immediate peace without annexations (i.e., without the seizure of foreign lands, without the forcible incorporation of foreign nations)”. The decree proposed “all the belligerent peoples and their governments to start immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace”.

At the same time, the Soviet regime did not pose it as an ultimatum but was prepared to discuss all other peace proposals. Unprecedented in world history was the fact that the new government “abolishes secret diplomacy, and, for its part, announces its firm intention to conduct all negotiations quite openly in full view of the whole people. It will proceed immediately with the full publication of the secret treaties endorsed or concluded by the government of land-owners and capitalists from February to October 25, 1917”.

The second decree was about giving land to the 100 million small farmers and landless in the countryside. The first sentence declared that, “Landed proprietorship is abolished forthwith without any compensation”. The decree was directly copied by demands from the peasant soviet congress and from the Socialist Revolutionaries, who had strong support outside the cities. Lenin commented on this: “That is unimportant. As a democratic government, we cannot simply ignore the wishes of the popular masses, even if we are in disagreement with them”.

The Congress also decided to abolish the death penalty. The new government that was appointed was named the Council of People’s Commissars, with Lenin as chairman and Trotsky responsible for foreign policy. All ministers belonged to the Bolsheviks until the Left Socialist Revolutionaries joined the government in December. The new ministers received the same salary as skilled workers, 500 rubles per month, plus a supplement of 100 rubles per family member.

First days of counter-revolution

The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries did not accept that they had ended up in a minority. The Menshevik leader, Dan, later explained: “In the first few days, we had hoped that the Bolshevik conspiracy could be liquidated by force of arms.”

Already on October 26, the “Committee of Safety for Fatherland and Revolution” was formed on the initiative of the Mensheviks and SRs to overthrow the Bolsheviks by violence. This included the trade unions they controlled, but also representatives of the bourgeois, right-wing Cadets. The Committee called for strikes and sabotage and tried to “coordinate a rebellion in Petrograd in connection with the arrival of Krasnov’s Cossacks in the capital”. The committee also launched “open military action against the Bolsheviks the following morning”. Their forces occupied the telephone exchange and the state bank, but the insurgency was quickly ended by Soviet forces. Even General Krasnov’s Cossacks were stopped and became demoralised. Krasnov himself was arrested but was released on the promise not to resume fighting, something he immediately broke to become one of the most important White (i.e. counter-revolutionary) war commanders in the coming years. (Quotes from Alexander Rabinowitch: The Bolsheviks come to power)

The Mensheviks and SR temporarily gave up their attempt to militarily overthrow the Soviet government. Now they demanded to be part of a coalition government, where one of their many demands was to exclude Lenin and Trotsky from the government. They also demanded that the workers’ militias should be disarmed and the former Prime Minister, Kerensky, who had fled to Krasnov’s camp, regain the command of Petrograd’s troops.

The revolution was facing many major difficulties. Counter-revolutionary white troops perpetrated massacres, for example at the Arsenal factory in Moscow. Alcohol store were opened to try to drown the troops in booze. Qualified staff refused to perform their duties.

In response, the Soviet government continued to encourage and support the masses’ own initiatives. A decree on 28 October gave local power over the distribution of food and goods. The right to request or confiscate housing to resolve the housing crisis was given in another decree. On November 14, a decree was issued calling on workers’ committees to control companies’ production, accounting and finance.

That it was a radically different regime was clear from the decisions to legalise divorce and non-religious marriage, that schools would no longer be governed by the church, the eight-hour working day, refusal to pay the Tsar’s debts to the banks and more. It offered foreign workers living in Russia the same rights as Russians and later, when the Red Army was launched, it was regarded as an internationalist force, not a national army.

National liberation

Tsarist Russia was called “the prison of nations” by Lenin. “The Bolsheviks were the only Russian left-wing group behind the demand for full freedom for Finland” admit Swedish historians, Berglund and Sennertag, in their new book on the Finnish Civil War. On November 2, the new government issued the “Declaration of the Rights of the people in Russia” in order to implement the Bolshevik programme. It had four main points:

1. The equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia.

2. The right of the peoples of Russia to free self-determination, even to the point of separation and the formation of an independent state. 

3. The abolition of any and all national and national-religious privileges and disabilities. 

4. The free development of national minorities and ethnic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia. 

While the provisional governments maintained national oppression, and even dissolved the Finnish parliament in the summer of 1917, the October Revolution signified the world’s greatest national liberation movement. “You must become the masters in your own countries”, was the call of the Bolshevik government. This in a world where capitalist “democracies” ruled colonies around the world with dictatorial methods.

Civil war in Finland

On November 4, the Finnish Government, the Senate, declared independence, a decision that the following day was confirmed by Lenin. A Finnish delegation came to Petrograd on New Year’s Eve in 1917, and on January 4, the Soviet leadership confirmed Finland’s independence.

The new Finland was strongly influenced by the Russian Revolution and was also first to be shaken by a full-scale civil war. The labour movement, which lacked a Bolshevik party which had been so decisive in Russia, had abstained from taking power during the mighty general strike in November 1917. That gave the white troops, with support from Germany and Sweden, the opportunity to prepare. When the workers’ revolution began in January 1918, the bloody civil war immediately started.

The militarily superior white counterrevolution clearly showed how far the bourgeois was prepared to go. 5,000 red combatants – workers, farm workers, poor farmers – were killed in direct battles, while up to 25,000 were killed in the white terror that followed. More than 80,000 were imprisoned in concentration camps, many of whom lost all civic rights.

The constituent assembly

One myth spread by right wingers and social democrats is that February was a “democratic” revolution. They forget to mention that the provisional government, with Prime Ministers from Prince Lvov to Kerensky, not were elected by anyone, relying on the support from the majority parties in the Soviets and by Russia’s allies in the war. Throughout February to October, elections were postponed.

The Bolsheviks understood the limits after February, explaining the need for the working class to take power.  At the same time, they supported the demand for elections to a constituent assembly. A bourgeois republic with general elections was preferable to a republic without elections, but all power to the soviets was the goal of the Bolsheviks. The working class taking power and breaking with capitalism would leave discussions on different bourgeois ruling methods to historians. 

When the Soviets took power and the Bolsheviks formed a government, it was anyway decided to go on with the planned elections to the constituent assembly. 36 million voted in November 1917. The Socialist Revolutionaries became the largest party with 16.5 million votes (plus four million for SR parties outside of Russia itself). The Bolsheviks received 9 million while the Mensheviks and their allies had 1.7 million votes. The bourgeois Cadet party with its support parties received 4.6 million.

The Bolsheviks were undoubtedly the party of the working class. In the leading revolutionary cities, Moscow and Petrograd, the Bolsheviks won 837,000 votes against 218,000 for the SRs and 515,000 for the Cadets. Here the Mensheviks had only three percent. The Bolsheviks also received just under half of the votes in the army and navy.

The fact that the SRs became the largest party, with their base in rural areas, can be explained by the fact that candidates were selected appointed before the party split into the right-SR and left-SR. During the winter of 1917-18, the left-SRs gave support to the Bolsheviks and also joined the government. At the same time, the Bolsheviks implemented a land reform in accordance with the SR programme. 

In other words, the working class had won mass support from the poor and the landless in the countryside, which in turn explains why the Soviet government was not as short-lived as the bourgeoisie, the right-SRs and the Mensheviks hoped. The masses had moved very quickly to the left.

The election to the Constituent Assembly became a kind of opinion poll, but developments had already passed this stage. The October Revolution realised worker’s rule and made the idea of a constituent assembly outdated.

The parties that led the provisional governments had failed all the tasks of the revolution – peace, land reform, national oppression, and so on. Them regaining power would open the way for the White counterrevolution, as it had done in the summer of 1917. Only soviet power could take society forward.

The Constituent Assembly, gathered on January 5, was dissolved by the Soviet government, “…a great sensation abroad. In Russia, it passed almost unnoticed”, writes Victor Serge in Year One of the Russian Revolution.

Peace negotiations

The First World War was an imperialist war for power, colonies and markets that killed 20 million. At the beginning of the war, the leaderships of most social democratic parties in Europe capitulated and supported the war drive of their own capitalist class. The opposition to war was one of the Bolsheviks’ unique features.

Immediately after taking power, the Bolsheviks’ slogan of peace was spread and on March 3, the war’s first peace agreement, between Soviet-led Russia and Germany-Austria-Hungary, was signed. However, the months before were far from a straight line to peace.

During the Bolsheviks first discussions in January, Lenin was in the minority with his position to sign an agreement as soon as possible. At a meeting of 65 party leaders, “left communists” received a majority of 32 votes for their line of “revolutionary war” against Germany. Lenin received 15 votes and Trotsky’s position, delaying the negotiations to make clear that the Soviet government was forced to sign a deal, received 16 votes. 

The debate continued over the following months. The Left Communists, with Bukharin as their leading representative, published a daily newspaper in favour of a revolutionary war. The harsh demands from the German generals, who had established dictatorial power, for control over Poland, the Baltics and more, increased the resistance against signing a deal.

Lenin patiently and realistically argued that the masses were completely opposed to extending the war and that the army had effectively dissolved. The German army took advantage of the halt in negotiations and occupied large parts of the former tsarist Russia: the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine.

With the German invasion, Lenin was able to win a majority with the support of Trotsky, who was the Bolshevik peace negotiator and organiser of a new Red Army. It was an unfavourable, demeaning agreement, where Soviet Russia was forced to give up areas with over 60 percent of its metal production and 55 percent of wheat crops. 40 percent of the working class now lived outside the Soviet ruled area.

The central powers of the war – Germany and Austria-Hungary – needed the harvests in Ukraine against famine in their own countries. Formally invited by the parliament in Ukraine, the Rada, the German troops quickly became a new oppressive regime and on April 26, the Rada was dissolved. The occupants also encountered strong resistance in the countryside, where landless and poor farmers fought to keep the gains of the revolution.

Imperialist unityIn the spring of 1918, there was also a common agreement against the Russian revolution between the two blocs that caused the slaughter of the World War. German, Turkish and British troops, formerly on opposing sides, participated at the same time to break the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus, also here on the invitation of Mensheviks and the SRs.

The imperialist powers also exposed Russia to a hunger blockade, which hit hard against a country already so ravaged by the war. A large proportion of previous food stores were found in areas now occupied by foreign and white troops. Famines ravaged in the cities, for example, Petrograd’s population decreased from 2.3 million 1915 to 1.5 million in the summer of 1918. In April-May, food shortages became acute. The government set up a food army to order food in rural areas.

The new regime’s economy was far from a full socialist economy. There were large parts based on the peasant economy, small craft production, private companies and state capitalism side by side with socialist parts. The Bolsheviks, while quickly nationalising the banks, did not immediately begin massive nationalisation of industry, seeking instead to initially develop and strengthen workers’ control of production. But as the war of the counter-revolution continued, in parallel with capitalists’ sabotage, the government was forced to confront more and more companies, with mass nationalisations at the end of June.

Invading armies 

“The counter-revolutionary conspiracies in central Russia in July and August was organised and financed from abroad”, wrote EH Carr, a British historian, in his study of the Russian Revolution. The full civil war began with imperialist invasions. Carr described: “In the spring and early summer of 1918, the German army occupied the former Baltic States, almost all Belarus and all of Ukraine, and even penetrated the northern Caucasus and into Transcaucasia”. In addition, there was the British army in the northern city of Murmansk, British and French forces in Archangel, and in April 1918 Japanese forces landed in Vladivostok. In August, these invasions were joined by US troops. A total of 21 armies from eleven countries participated in the war against the government in Moscow.

30,000 Czech prisoners of war, which the Allies intended to send to the Western Front to fight against Germany, now took over large areas along the Trans-Siberian railroad, including the city of Samara, where four SR leaders had established a new constituent assembly and government. From the Urals to Siberia, there was for a time up to 20 different governments. Many of these were under French military protection.

At the same time, both right and left SRs planned and attacked the Soviet government. The right-SRs killed the Bolshevik leader, Volodarsky, on June 20. Left-SRs assassinated the German ambassador to try to provoke a war. They even sent out a telegram that they had taken power because “the people want war with Germany”.

On August 30, Lenin was shot on his way to a meeting and suffered injuries that were first judged as life threatening. The same day, Bolshevik leader Uritsky, was killed and another attack attempted to blow up the train Trotsky used to get to the fronts.

The revolution defends itself

It was only now that the government decided to answer the massacres and war with “red terror”. During the first half of 1918, red forces had killed only 22 people– at a time when the white terror was ravaging Finland and parts of the former Tsarist Russia. With the invasion of combined imperialism, the revolution was forced to defend itself. During the second half of the year, the Red Terror killed 6,000 people. However, as Victor Serge points out, that is less than in single days of the battle in Verdun.

The revolution and its fundamental message of land, bread and peace still had massive support, both in Russia and internationally. The Red Army, with large number of workers who had been at the head of the revolution, was able to take several important cities from the Czech troops in August 1918. In the autumn of 1918, the German Emperor was overthrown by the German Revolution. Demoralisation and “revolutionisation” of the German troops that had invaded Russia became an important factor. Imperialism was checked by their fear of revolutions at home.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks knew that the Russian Revolution would be the beginning of more revolutions in Europe. These in turn would save Russia from its economic and social underdevelopment, and from acute starvation and war. The Bolsheviks’ internationalism was the basis of their determined defence of the revolution.

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November 2018