Anti-Bolshevik Resistance to the Bolshevik Coup of October 25-26: Tragedy or Farce?

On August 20, 1917 more than half a million Petrograd residents – forty percent of the electorate – voted for a new city council. These were the first elections held in accord with Russia’s new law on universal suffrage, and the results reflected the capital’s radical political mood. Out of two hundred deputies elected on August 20, 75 belonged to the largest socialist party, the non-Marxist Socialist Revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks came in second with 65 seats. The Mensheviks, the more moderate Marxist party, held onto only 8 seats, a clear indication of their dwindling popularity. The elections signaled the decline of the liberal Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party as well. In June, when elections for a temporary city council were held, the liberals had won significantly more seats than the Bolsheviks, and almost as many seats as the SRs, but in August only 42 Kadet deputies were elected to the new council.

From the day the new council opened on September 1 political combat, not the city’s escalating needs, dominated its sessions. Pushed inexorably to the right and alarmed by growing chaos in the army and the country, the liberal deputies called in vain for the restoration of order. Although the SRs held the plurality of seats, they lost authority as they vacillated between the right and the left. The Bolshevik delegation displayed no such uncertainty. They demand an end to the war and the immediate transfer of power to the representatives of workers, soldiers, and peasants in the soviets. The warring deputies did share one belief – that the democratically elected council represented the voice of the city’s citizens. But they differed radically on what that voice was saying in the fall of 1917.

The council was also paralyzed by catastrophic municipal debt, demands by striking city workers, and the city’s growing food emergency. Ordinary questions of municipal life were simply “blown away,” in the words of one deputy, “by the whirlwind of revolution.” Meeting on October 24, deputies could talk of little else besides the rumors of the Bolsheviks’ impending armed insurrection against the Provisional Government. Over the protests of Bolshevik deputies, the council denounced “all violent armed actions” and called upon the city’s inhabitants to “unite around the council, as its authorized representative organ.” A “Committee of Public Safety” was formed, which provoked loud protests from the Bolshevik delegation.

On the eventful night of October 25, the council opened at 8 pm with a dramatic announcement from Mayor G. I. Shreider. Armed workers and soldiers had surrounded the Winter Palace where the Provisional Government was meeting. They had sent an ultimatum to the besieged ministers: surrender by 9 pm, or Bolshevik sailors on the navy cruiser Aurora, anchored in the river across from the palace, would open fire. “In the name of humanity,” Shreider pleaded, the city’s elected representatives should do all in their power to prevent the fall of the Provisional Government. After arguing about what was actually going on, and what the city council should do about it, the deputies finally accepted the mayor’s call to action and created three delegations: one to go to the Winter Palace, the second to the Petrograd Soviet in Smolnyi, and the third to the Aurora, where the delegates would attempt to persuade its crew not to fire on the government.

When viewed almost a century later, the events that followed appear to have combined tragedy with elements of comedy, but in the eyes of the participants the crisis was deadly serious. The three-member delegation to the Aurora set off by automobile along the capital city’s main thoroughfare Nevsky Prospect toward the river. They not get far. Less than five minutes from the city council building, an armed patrol from the Bolsheviks’ Military Revolutionary Committee forced them to turn back. Upon their return, the deputies began to debate a proposal to march en masse to the Winter Palace. If the ministers of the Provisional Government, in refusing to surrender, were ready to die, many deputies argued that night, then the city’s democratically elected representatives should go to die with them.

After more debate and over the objections of the few remaining Bolshevik deputies, the majority voted in favor of the march. As deputies began preparing to leave, however, new voices warned against taking on the role of martyr. The council’s delegation to the Winter Palace, which had been stopped by armed revolutionaries at Palace Square, reported that the streets were dark and dangerous. Since telephone communication with the ministers in the palace had been cut, no one even knew whether they were still alive. Returning at this time from his unsuccessful talks with Leon Trotsky, chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, the mayor advised the deputies that resistance was too late.

Undaunted, the deputies put on their coats, picked up bags of bread and sausage for the besieged ministers, and formed a procession. At 1:30 am three hundred men and women in rows of eight began marching in silence up Nevsky Prospect toward the Winter Palace. The streetlights were out, and the weather was foul, rainy and foggy. Amid the sounds of their own footsteps, the marchers heard occasional shots ring out as the Bolsheviks took control of the city. After only a few minutes armed sailors halted the procession. Deputies at the front tried to argue with the sailors to let the people’s elected representatives pass, but met with sullen silence, then irritation and hostility. The procession began to fall apart, one marcher recalled, as nervous sailors fingered their rifles and deputies grew aware of their powerlessness. Breaking into scattered groups, the discouraged marchers silently returned to the council. A hungry few furtively ate the bread and sausage intended for the embattled ministers. The remaining deputies voted to form a “Committee for the Salvation of the Fatherland and the Revolution,” then finally adjourned at 3 am. Elsewhere in the capital, resistance to the Bolshevik coup proved as futile as the city council’s. Storming the Winter Palace, the Military Revolutionary Committee easily overcame the cadets and women soldiers guarding the Provisional Government, and placed the ministers under arrest. Lenin proclaimed that Russia was now the world’s first socialist republic.

The city council’s ineffectual procession on the night of October 25-26 has been remembered as a symbol of the weakness of the Bolsheviks’ opponents. One Kadet deputy regarded the decision to march to the Winter Palace as “ridiculous,” and the entire episode a “banal farce.” The account of another eyewitness, the pro-Bolshevik John Reed, has become famous. Reed came upon the procession on the corner of Nevsky and the Catherine Canal as he dashed around Petrograd that night with other American journalists. His description in Ten Days that Shook the World of the hapless marchers melodramatically proclaiming their readiness to die set the tone for subsequent accounts that mock or dismiss the incident, most notably the scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 film. But it took considerable courage to decide to face the armed bands of workers and soldiers that roamed the city’s dangerous streets. It may have proved easy that night for the Bolsheviks to overcome protest marches and resolutions, but it was infinitely more difficult to overcome the armed resistance that turned into brutal civil war six months later.

Adele Lindenmeyr, Villanova University (USA)

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