The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The October Insurrection in Petrograd

Oct 30, 2017

This article continues our series on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

The Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) prepared the October insurrection working closely with the Petrograd Soviet and the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, both headquartered in the Smolny Palace. The plan was to launch the uprising during the night of October 24th-25th (November 6th-7th by our calendar), and it relied on the joint action of workers’ detachments from the Red Guards, the Petrograd garrison, and the Baltic sailors. But the first actions of the insurrection actually broke out as early as the morning of October 24th, in reaction to the Provisional Government’s efforts to preemptively strike at the revolution, such as the attack on the Bolshevik printing presses or the transfer of troops to different parts of the capital – as Trotsky, who was president of the Petrograd Soviet at the time, remarks in his History of the Russian Revolution:

“Kerensky had collected in the Winter Palace cadets, officers, and members of the women's shock battalion. …

The Kerensky Government was casting about for help from one quarter to another. It recalled two new cyclist battalions from the front and a mortar battery, and tried to call out some cavalry. The cyclists, when on their way, sent a telegram to the Petrograd Soviet: ‘We are being taken to Petrograd. We do not know for what purpose. Kindly explain.’ We asked them to stop and to send a delegation to us. When the latter arrived, they declared at the meeting of the Soviet that the battalion was entirely on our side. This aroused a new storm of enthusiasm. The battalion was ordered to enter the town immediately. …

The Ministry of the Marine gave orders to the Aurora to get under way and leave Petrograd waters. The crew immediately informed us of this fact. We countermanded the order, and the cruiser remained ready, at any moment, to use all her forces on behalf of the Soviet authority.”

The Smolny Palace: The General Staff of the Insurrection

The day of the 24th, according to the testimony of the Bolshevik Raskolnikov, the Smolny Palace was converted into a defensive camp: “Cannon were in position out in front of the columns. Machine-guns alongside them … Almost on every step those same ‘maxims,’ looking like toy-cannon. And through all the corridors … the swift, loud, happy tramp of workers, soldiers, sailors and agitators.”

Worker delegates arrived from all over, ready to receive the MRC’s instructions: “At Smolny, in the Factory and Shop Committee room, delegates from the plants stood in line to get orders for rifles. The capital had seen many people waiting in lines during the war years – now for the first time it saw them waiting in line for rifles.”

The Workers and Soldiers Take Power

On the evening of October 24th, the uprising was launched. The revolutionaries took control of the central telegraph station and the government’s telegraph agency: “Two soldiers from the regiment, standing by the commutator with rifles, proved sufficient to attain a compromise with the hostile telegraph officials, among whom were no Bolsheviks.... The main operation began at two o’clock in the morning. Small military parties, usually with a nucleus of armed workers or sailors under the leadership of commissars, occupied simultaneously, or in regular order, the railroad stations, the lighting plant, the munition and food stores, the waterworks, the Palace Bridge, the Telephone Exchange, the State Bank, and the big printing-plants. The Telegraph Station and the Post Office were completely taken over. Reliable guards were placed everywhere.”

Within a few hours, the focal points of the city had passed under the control of the revolutionaries, practically without resistance, fighting, or victims. The insurrection, which had been openly proclaimed and organized in countless meetings organized by the Bolsheviks, was everywhere welcomed enthusiastically. Trotsky cites the occupation of the printing-plant of the reactionary paper Russkaia Volia, which was entrusted at the last minute to the Semenov Guard regiment in order to avoid making a commotion: “The printing-plant was needed to issue the Bolshevik paper in large format and with a big circulation. The soldiers had already lain down to sleep. The commissar briefly told them the object of his visit: ‘I hadn’t stopped talking when a shout of “Hurrah!” went up on all sides. The soldiers were jumping out of their bunks and crowding around me in a close circle.’ A truck loaded with men from the Semenov regiment approached the printing-plant. The workers of the night-shift quickly assembled in the rotary-press room. The commissar explained why he had come. ‘And here, as in the barracks, the workers answered with shouts of ‘Hurrah! Long live the Soviets!’ ”

Mensheviks and Socialist- Revolutionaries: With the Bourgeoisie, Against the Insurrection

At the same time, in the middle of the night, the preliminary session was being held for the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was to open the following day. The Bolshevik Party would have had a majority from that point on. Trotsky went there to announce that the insurrection had been launched.

The supporters of the Provisional Government protested and left the room one after the other. In the night, they proclaimed a Committee for Salvation of Country and Revolution, uniting with bourgeois officials from the Kadet Party in the Duma [legislature]. The journalist John Reed was present and observed: “Nothing could be more striking than the contrast between this assemblage and the Congress of Soviets. There, great masses of shabby soldiers, grimy workmen, peasants – poor men, bent and scarred in the brute struggle for existence; here the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leaders – Avksentievs, Dans, Liebers – the former Socialist Ministers – Skobelievs, Chernovs – rubbed shoulders with Kadets like oily Shatsky, sleek Vinaver; with journalists, students, intellectuals of almost all camps. This Duma crowd was well-fed, well-dressed; I did not see more than three proletarians among them all.”

All Power to the Soviets!

During the day of October 25th, some skirmishes broke out around the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government was entrenched, protected by the last troops that were still faithful to it. Several dozen victims fell on both sides. However, a few rounds of cannon fire from the cruiser Aurora and the determination of the revolutionaries were enough to carry the victory. The ministers of the Provisional Government were arrested. Kerensky was able to escape and fled to the front, where he still hoped to rally the troops. The second Congress of Soviets, acclaiming the victorious insurrection, took power into its own hands.

Starting on the morning of October 25th, a proclamation signed by the Military Revolutionary Committee circulated through the streets of the capital:

“To the citizens of Russia!

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 Revolutionary Military 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!”