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The Rise of The Bolsheviks

Updated on April 23, 2011

On Thursday, 15th March, 1917 the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas the 2nd abdicated, therefore concluding the first Revolution of Russia in 1917. The Tsar was out of touch with his people and was continuing with a war that the people of Russia had mostly lost their enthusiasm for. On the 7th of March, the Tsar left Petrograd for military duties. The next day a relatively small march was started by women demanding bread. This first event escalated into full scale riots as workers and soldiers joined the cause over the next few days. These spontaneous riots only finished when the Tsar abdicated under pressure from the newly formed Petrograd Soviet and Provisional Government. This first revolution led the way for the Bolshevik Party to take control of Russia after the second revolution in October 1917. However the Bolsheviks were met with great resistance and did not fully establish their power until 1921.

The abdication of the Tsar left Russia as a de facto republic and leadership fell to the Provisional Government, whose members mostly came from the Duma’s executive committee. Of the eleven ministers, Alexander Kerensky was the only member to represent the left-wing liberals. Though the Provisional Government was able to introduce some reforms such as the freeing of political prisoners, the abolishment of the death penalty and the relaxation of press censorship, its power soon dwindled. This was due to the PG only being seen as temporary leaders until a Constituent Assembly could be elected. They also faced the Soviet in a power struggle. As well as the Petrograd Soviet many other Soviets were formed in cities and rural areas, creating much popularity amongst the working class and peasants. The first leader of the Provisional Government, Prince Lvov, described the Soviet as having ‘power without authority’ and the PG as having ‘authority without power.’

The March revolution was mostly confined to Petrograd which meant the peasants of wider Russia were not in full support of the Provisional Government. This situation was made worse by the fact the Provisional Government refused to act on land reforms, something which they decided would be a job for a properly elected Constituent Assembly. The peasants however did not wait and drove landowners off their land and claimed what they saw as theirs, often these incidents involved violence. The PG also misread the publics view on war and decided to push ahead in the name of national honour. In fact Kerensky, the new leader of the government by July, decided to attack the Germans with a strong offensive, something which proved very unpopular. These two major issues made the PG increasingly unpopular and this paved the way for the Bolshevik’s push for power.

After the March revolution the Bolsheviks were still considered an extremist party and had only 40 delegates in the Soviet of a possible 1500. They had no major influence on the politics of Russia at the time. The turning point in the fortunes of the Bolsheviks was when Vladimir Lenin returned from exile on the 16th of April. He immediately made his opinions known by creating the ‘April Theses.’ Lenin wanted to end the war and to have all landed estates taken over by the local soviets. These ideas were in direct conflict with the PG and he felt that it should be disbanded. Up until this point the Bolshevik delegates had not caused any great commotion and the PG and the Soviet had been able to work together to some extent. Once Lenin had convinced the majority of the Bolsheviks of his plans, they made a concerted effort to make the Bolsheviks the dominant force of the Soviet. Though they had gained popularity with soldiers and peasants through their ideas and slogan of ‘Peace, Bread, Land,’ the Bolsheviks only managed 105 out of 822 delegates at the All Russian Congress of Soviets in June. The same congress also passed a vote of confidence in the PG.

Another major blow to the Bolsheviks came as a direct result of the Kerensky offensive of July. Some soldiers, sailors and workers took to the streets in protest. Lenin saw this as a way to cement the Bolsheviks as the leaders of the revolution if they supported the protesters, though he was wary of the possible backlash. Unfortunately for the Bolsheviks, Lenin’s fears were realised as the rest of the Soviet distanced itself from the Bolsheviks. Lenin was discredited and other leaders of the Bolsheviks were arrested by the PG’s loyal troops, including Leon Trotsky.

Though this was a major setback, the ineptness of the PG was becoming more obvious which offered hope to the Bolsheviks. The government and Kerensky himself were losing confidence and direction. In September, Kerensky ordered the new Commander-in-Chief Lavr Kornilov to transfer his troops to Petrograd to try to suppress a Bolshevik uprise and to reassert the Government’s authority. Kerensky however changed his mind, but Kornilov continued to march his troops towards the capital. Fear and confusion arose as some feared a right wing coup. The Bolsheviks by this stage had their own military called the Red Guard. It was the Red Guard who was able to persuade Kornilov’s troops to abandon the attack. This increased support for the Bolsheviks massively. They gained 50% of seats in the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow and within a week of Trotsky being released from prison he was made the Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet.

By October the PG had lost most of its support and Bolsheviks were primed for a takeover. Kerensky called for the elections for the Constituent Assembly to be held in late November. Lenin decided that the coup should be before then because the Bolshevik’s major support was in the cities and they would not fair well in a democratic election. Lenin however was still in hiding so he relied on Trotsky to push his plans. Trotsky filled the second All Russian Congress of Soviets with Bolshevik delegates so they would heavily outweigh the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. While the congress was in meeting on the 6th of November, the Red Guard moved throughout Petrograd taking major buildings with out much struggle. By late the next night when the Red Guard seized the Winter Palace, they had control over the whole city. The Bolsheviks had overthrown the Provisional Government and taken control of the soviet of Petrograd.

Though the Bolsheviks had gained power and leadership there was still much opposition to the prospect of one-party rule. The Bolsheviks had named their Government Sovnarkom, had proposed a decree on land distribution and were working towards an end to war with Germany by early December. However the elections for the Constituent Assembly showed the Social Revolutionaries to be the most popular party in Russia due to their strong support from the peasants. The Bolsheviks delayed the opening of the Assembly until the 18th of January. When the Assembly returned from adjournment the delegates were disallowed entrance by the Kronstadt sailors on behalf of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks then abolished the Assembly, claiming full control over Russia.

This allowed Lenin to finally put an end to Russia’s involvement in WW1. On the 14th of December an armistice was called between Russia and the Central Powers. This allowed negotiations to start between the two nations. Though Lenin wanted peace at any price, the Bolsheviks decided to go with a theory put forward by Trotsky, which was to cease fighting but to not sign any formal peace agreement. The Germans however wanted a guarantee and when they did not get it, they resumed attack and pushed deep into Russia. Lenin was forced into signing the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk, which brought peace but meant Russia, lost many of its territories and 30% of its population. These was a large sacrifice but one that had to be made if Lenin wanted to end the war and be able to concentrate on rebuilding Russia.
Lenin quickly went to work trying to rebuild Russia’s economy, unfortunately State Capitalism was not working. The end of the war brought about much unemployment in the cities as 70% of industrial capital had been geared towards the war. The newly renamed Communist party had other problems on their hands. They effectively were only in control of the land between Petrograd and Moscow and there was much unrest outside this area. By March 1918 this unrest had grown into a civil war.

Opposition to the Communists came from many different sources, all with different agendas and only unified in the goal of overturning the Communists’ rule. These forces become collectively known as the Whites. There were many White strong holds setup all over Russia. In the south there was Kornilov, he had a strong army filled with former officers. Also in the south there was the Volunteer Army led by General Denikin who wanted the re-election of the Constituent Assembly. In Siberia, there was a rival government set up by Admiral Kolchak in Omsk. Disgruntled social revolutionaries grouped in Lower Volga and from Estonia came an army led by General Yudenich. Along with these Russian armies there was the Czech Legion, made up of 40,000 Austrian prisoners of war who had fought for Russia in WW1 but were betrayed Trotsky, so they took up the cause of the Whites. The British and French also occupied parts of Russia as they wanted to uphold the Eastern Front against Germany; the French stayed because the Communists would not be repaying Russia’s monetary debt to France.

The Communist’s had the Red Army which was made up of massive amounts of workers and peasants. They were supported by others wishing not to return to the old order. Trotsky was a ruthless but calculating leader of the army. He recruited many experienced officers from the old imperial army who made sure the soldiers always remained disciplined. The troops fought well out of the fear of being punished for mistakes and were inspired by Trotsky who was known to visit battle lines in a special armoured train. The Red Army was unified against forces with little in common and they also held a strong, central tactical position. These factors helped the Red’s over come each of its White counterparts. Once the Civil War was over there came an attack from Poland wanting Russian land. This came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Riga on March 18, 1921. This brought major fighting in Russia to a close, the Communists had consolidated their power and they could now turn their attention to economic issues.

By 1917, Russia was certainly in need of a revolution for new leadership and a new way of life for the people. However the quick rise to power by the Bolsheviks was quite unprecedented. They were not seen as political super powers by any means. It must be said that though Lenin’s influence on the Russian people is undeniable, it is also due to the ineptitude of the Provisional Government that the Bolsheviks were allowed to gather support. It can be seen how strong leadership is an important factor for success. It was Lenin’s intelligence who got the Bolsheviks into power but Trotski’s cunning which kept them there throughout the duration of the Civil War.


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