Michael PearsonThe Sealed Train
From the Start of Trotskys planning, information had streamed into Kerenskys big room overlooking the Neva, but supported as he thought he was by the entire right wing and the two big socialist parties, he was not too anxious. All I want them to do is act, he told Sir George Buchanan. Then I will crush them.1
The reason for Kerenskys confidence was the Pre-Parliament, which in its sessions every day in the Mariinsky Palace had assumed much of the role formerly carried out by the Soviet, as well as performed the function of an assembly. Although the Bolsheviks had boycotted it, the other socialist leaders played a prominent partas indeed did the heads of the bourgeois parties. Kerensky felt that because he had the support of the Pre-Parliament, he led the nation.
As soon as Trotsky had started to make overt moves to control the garrison through the MRC, Kerensky had acted to counter him. The Petersburg commander had warned all regiments that anyone provoking the masses to civil war must be a conscious tool of the Emperor Wilhelm. At the same time, Kerensky had called in the Junker military cadets from the nearby towns to strengthen the defense of the Winter Palace. Six field guns had been brought from the Mikhailovsky Artillery Academy. Outposts had been set up in Millionnaya Street to the east of Palace Square and in the Alexandrovsky Gardens to the west.
The Day of the Soviet, when Bolshevik orators gained such ecstatic receptions throughout the city, made it obvious that a Bolshevik revolt was imminent. The next morning, Monday, Kerensky summoned troops from the frontincluding Cossacksand called in a shock division stationed at Pavlovsk. The government staging area was the Winter Palace with its complex of buildings around the big square on the south of the river and, on the north of the Neva, the Fortress of Peter and Paul. The garrison of the fortress was still loyal. Palace Bridge linked the two bastions.
That Monday morning, at a meeting of the Cabinet in the palace, the ministers agreed with Kerenskys proposal that the government should at last act against the Bolsheviks. That day the party newspapers would be closed down and the leaders of the MRC arrested.
As a precaution, the cruiser Aurora, the only big ship on the Neva that had been undergoing a refit in the docks, was ordered to sea for trials. Her crew, like so many of the sailors, were unreliable.
Meanwhile, in Smolny, the men whose arrest was being planned in the palace were completing their own arrangements to seize powermaking the last-minute appointment of commissars to all units. The committee from the Aurora, whose sailing orders were even then being phoned to the ships captain, was being instructed in person by Sverdlov. The warship would not be going to sea, for the MRC had plans for her.
Smolny was being fortified. Machine guns were placed at strategic points on the ground and on the balconies. Barricades were made out of piles of firewood. Fifteen hundred Red Guards as well as some professional machine gunners had been detailed to man its defenses. Near the entrance, guards warmed their hands at braziers.
In a public announcement, the MRC informed the people of the city that commissars had been appointed to all military units and key points in the capital. The commissars as representatives of the Soviet are inviolable, the committee warned. Opposition to the commissars is opposition to the Soviet. . . .
That Monday, near lunchtime, in crowded Room 17 on Smolnys top floor, the MRC leaders studied the map of the city as reports flowed in : the lean, bearded Podvoisky, his eyes red with lack of sleep; Antonov-Ovseenko, unshaven, his long hair disheveled, his collar filthy. All the others in the room were haggard with fatigue. They had not been home for days, grabbing sleep when they could on the floor or on sofas.
They knew the temperature of each regiment, recorded Trotsky, and followed every shift in the sympathies and views of each barracks. . . . There remained, however, some dark shadows on the map.
One shadow was crucial : the Fortress of Peter and Paul. That day the commander had felt so confident of the garrison troops that he had threatened to arrest the commissar the MRC had appointed.
The problem could be postponed no longer. They could not leave the fortress in Kerenskys hands. Trotsky was called into Room 17 for a final discussion on tactics. Antonov urged aggressive action. Why dont we march into the fortress with a reliable battalion of Pavlovskys and disarm the hostile units? he said.
Trotsky shook his head. That would be too drastic, and it could be exploited by the officers. The troops cannot be unsympathetic, he mused.
That afternoon he traveled to Peter and Paul to address the men and expose them to his fantastic personal magnetism. Happily, he phoned Smolny from the fortress that the garrison had agreed to take orders only from the MRC.
By that night everything was ready for the rising. All that was lacking was some provocative action by Kerensky, so that Trotsky could present the uprising as a defense of the revolution rather than a grab for power.
Before dawn, a restless Trotsky was roaming the long vaulted corridors of Smolny with Podvoisky. Two people, a man and woman, ran up to him, panting. Government Junkers had closed down Rabochy Put and Soldat, the party journals, and fixed seals on the doors.
Immediately, Trotsky sent an order to the troops stationed near the press to break the seals and to protect the printers. Production of the papers was soon resumed.
Meanwhile, Trotsky had the excuse he needed, the instrument with which he could present an aggressive strike for power as a defensive maneuver against the conspirators of the counterrevolution, as he branded the government. The Petersburg Soviet is in danger . . . the MRC wired all regiments in the garrison, ordering them to be in complete readiness for action. . . .
The enemy of the people took the offensive during the night, a seaman operator on board Aurora radioed a warning to the barracks outside the city. The Military Revolutionary Committee is leading the resistance to the assault of the conspirators. They were to hold up all counterrevolutionary echelons moving toward the city, by which the MRC meant government relief forces.
Citizens! the MRC appealed to the people of the city. Counterrevolution is raising its head. The Kornilovists are mobilizing their forces to crush the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. . . . The Petersburg Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies assumes the defense of the revolutionary order. . . . Citizens, we call upon you to maintain complete calm and selfcontrol. . . .
That morning, in the Mariinsky Palace, Kerensky mounted the rostrum to address the Pre-Parliament. The capital . . . he declared, is in a state of revolt. We are faced with an attempt to incite the mob against the existing order . . . to lay open the front lines to the armies of Kaiser Wilhelm. . . . Let everyone remember that Kalush and Tarnopol [where the German counterattack broke through the line] coincided with the July revolt. . . .
Kerensky was convinced that Lenin had set the timing of the uprising in agreement with Berlin. For only three days before, the premier had received the information from Count Ottokar Czernin in Vienna intimating that Austria was ready to make a separate peace. Its significance had been enormous. It was to have been his means of solving his massive problems, of consolidating his position, of curbing the Bolsheviks.
Unhappily for Kerensky, it had come too late. For as he was addressing the Pre-Parliament in the Mariinsky Palace, the Bolshevik Central Committee was making final plans in Smolny. Lenin, of course, was not there. In fact, the impression given by contemporary documents suggests that he had been forgotten in his hideout in Bolshoy Sampsonievsky Prospect. He had served his historical purpose. He had assessed the situation and forced the party to revolt. He was not needed for the actual uprisingor at least he was not used.
Zinoviev, too, was absent. So was Stalin, engrossed in his role as editor of the party journal. However, Kamenev was present, even though technically he was not a member of the Central Committee. He had now dropped his opposition and was giving all the help he could.
Sverdlov, as usual, was in the chair. Calmly, the committee made the decision to grasp power that night. Special duties were allocated. One comrade was placed in charge of radio and telegraph communications; another was assigned to maintain contact with the railwaymen; a third was responsible for food supplies. Two men were appointed liaison officers with the party committee in Moscow. Sverdlov himself was to keep a special watch on the government ministers and stay in constant touch with the Fortress of Peter and Paul that was to be a reserve HQ if Smolny should be attacked and taken. Kamenev was ordered to open negotiations with the two opposition socialist parties whose leaders preferred him to the other Bolsheviks. According to Kerensky, Kamenevs assignment was to lull them off their guard. This may have been a part of the tactic but certainly the cooperation of the left-wing SRs, the party of the peasants, could be useful to the revolutionary government after the rising.
Soon after midday, John Reed was at Smolny. A steady stream of commissars came and went, he reported of the smoke-filled MRCs operations room. . . . In the hall I ran into some of the minor Bolshevik leaders. One showed me a revolver. The game is on, he said and his face was pale.
In fact, it was Kerensky who took the initiative. Early in the afternoon detachments of Junkers occupied the railway stations. Government troops set up command posts at the main street intersections and began to commandeer all private vehicles. The main bridges over the Neva and its branches were raisedexcept for Palace Bridge, which was left down, under heavy guard.
The MRC had not planned to start its operation until darkness fell, but as reports of what was happening began to filter in to Room 17 at Smolny, it became clear that some action was needed. For movement over the bridges was crucial to the whole strategy.
Podvoisky began phoning the commissars on duty at the points nearest to the bridges to discover the true situation. Some bridges had been raised, though most commissars had taken action to lower them. Podvoisky placed each bridge in the custody of the nearest barracks. The bridges are to be kept down at all costs, he ordered.
For twelve hours, through the afternoon and evening, the city was in confusion. The bridges were the focus of the fighting. Some were raised and lowered several times. The Nikolaevsky, which linked Vasilevsky Island with the city center, was not brought under firm MRC control until long after midnight.
Meanwhile, rival patrols roamed the streets. Only Smolny and the Winter Palace complexboth fortified with artillery, machine guns and barricadeswere firmly under the control of one side or the other.
Despite Kerenskys moves, the MRC did not change the early-morning schedule already laid down for the risingalmost certainly because, with the great numbers involved, an alteration to the plan could cause confusion.
Suddenly, on government orders, the operators in the telephone exchange, most of whom were Kadet Party members, refused to connect any more calls from Smolnyand the commissar from the Keksgolmsky Regiment was dispatched to persuade them to change their minds.
There was more trouble at Peter and Paulfrom the bicycle regiment that had not attended yesterdays meeting to hear Trotskys address. Again Trotsky had to rush across the Neva, with a strong escort, to persuade the hostile troopsthe same troops who had stormed the Kshesinskaya Mansion in Julyto support the Soviet. And again his personality and his near-magical gift of persuasion broke down the opposition.
During the evening, the MRC conducted a couple of small preliminary operations. They sent out units to seize the central telegraph officeretaken later by Kerenskys troopsand the government news agency. Then, as heavy rain washed the streets of the city, they waited.
Lenin was waiting too in the Vyborg apartment, uninformed even of the Central Committees decision to stage the rising, unaware that already there was fighting in the city centerpresumably because a phone call would have been dangerous at this critical time.
Fofanova was still in her office at the publishing house on Vasilevsky Island when at four oclock in the afternoon she heard that the bridges had been raised and that troops were on the march.
The people of the city, accustomed to conflict, were taking what were now routine preparations for crisis in their stride. Everyone was leaving his office for home. The shopkeepers were putting up shutters.
Hurriedly, Fofanova caught a streetcar home and reported to Lenin.
He was acutely alarmedfor the fact that some of the bridges were raised meant that the government had taken the initiative. Its impossible to postpone things any longer! he exclaimed angrily. Its vital that we start the armed uprising immediately.
He sent Fofanova to the Vyborg District Committee with orders to find out definitely whether or not the bridges had been loweredand with a brief note to Nadya, who was at the committee office, telling her to press for action and demand party permission for him to leave for Smolny.
Fofanova left Lenin in agony. He still believed that Trotsky and the Central Committee were holding back, were even now at the last minute hoping to seek power by constitutional means as Kamenev and Zinoviev had demanded. Newspaper reports had even referred to negotiations between the MRC and Kerenskys Military Headquarters.
Sitting down at the table in his room, he wrote an impassioned appeal to the party for action : Comrades, I am writing these lines on the evening of the 6th. The situation is extremely critical. . . . With all my power I wish to persuade the comrades that now everything hangs on a hair, that on the order of the day are questions that are not solved by conferences, by congresses (not even congresses of soviets), but only by the people . . . by the struggle of armed masses. . . .
We must not wait! We may lose everything! . . . The government is tottering. We must deal it the deathblow at any cost. To delay action is the same as death.
It was a release for Lenin, a bloodletting, for the letter could not possibly reach any but a very few party members that night. By the time Fofanova returned about nine oclock Rahja had joined Lenin in the apartment. The bridges had now all been lowered, Fofanova told himalthough this was not accuratebut the Vyborg Committee had insisted that he did not go to Smolny. With Junker patrols out in force, it would be far too dangerous.
Angrily, Lenin insisted she return to the committee. Ask them . . . what theyre afraid of. Arent there a hundred Bolshevik soldiers . . . with rifles, who would defend me? Quickly he wrote yet another note to Nadya for Fofanova to take with her. And if she had not returned by eleven oclock, he told her, he would take whatever action he considered necessary.
The Petersburg Soviet had been in almost continuous session in Smolnys second-floor ballroom. That night, as the Junkers were clashing with troops directed by the MRC, Trotsky mounted the rostrumborne on a wave of roaring applause, as one eyewitness described it, his thin pointed face was positively Mephistophelian. . . .
We are asked, he declared, if we intend to have an uprising. I can give a clear answer to that question. The Petersburg Soviet feels that at last the moment has arrived when the power must fall into the hands of the soviets. . . . We feel that our government, entrusted to the personnel of the Provisional Cabinet, is a pitiful and helpless government, which only awaits the sweep of the broom of history. . . .
Tomorrow, the Congress of Soviets opens. It is the task of the garrison and of the proletariat to put at its disposal the power they have gathered. . . .
It was a delicate and specious strategy that Trotsky was conducting. He was still not admitting that the MRC was planning to mount an offensive operation. He put everything in terms of defense.
Around midnight, orders went out from Smolny for two preliminary moves. Sverdlov wired Helsinki : Send Regulationsthe code order for the immediate dispatch of 1,500 sailors. The Aurora was ordered to proceed upriver to the Nikolaevsky Bridge, which was still raised and under the control of the Junkers. Restore traffic by all means at your disposal, the MRC commissar on board the cruiser was instructed.
All of the Auroras officers were under arrest because they had refused to obey the orders of the commissar, but at the last moment the captain could not bear the thought of a naval rating trying to navigate his big ship upriver in the relatively shallow water. He sent a message up to the commissar that he was willing to take the ship up to the bridge.
Tugs towed the cruiser into the river from the wharf at which she had been lying. Slowly, she steamed upstream.
Fofanova had returned to her apartment before the eleven oclock deadline that Lenin had given in his note to Nadya. But she had found the flat in darkness. On a clean plate on the dining-room table beside the unfinished remnants of Lenins supper was a note : I have gone there, where you did not want me to go. Good-byeIlyich.
By then, with Rahja, Lenin was trudging south through the rain on the way to Smolny. He was disguised in the inevitable wig, with a scarf wrapped around his chin and cheeks to give the impression that he was suffering from a toothache. Huddled in an overcoat with the collar up as he was, not much of him was visible.
A streetcar drew up at a stop as they were passing it, and they clambered aboard. Where are you going? Lenin asked the conductor.
The conductor looked at him strangely. Dont you know theres going to be a revolution? he asked the man who had been pleading for one for weeks and was still unconvinced it was going to happen. Were off to beat the bourgeoisie!2 The streetcar was on its way back to its depot. This meant that it would not cross the Neva, but would turn off by the Finland Station.
Lenin and Rahja got off while the train was still in Sampsonievsky Prospect, walked past the Finland Station carefully, as stations were obvious points for government patrols, and approached the Liteiny Bridge.
The bridge was down and the northern side was controlled by a unit of Red Guards. But as the two men were allowed onto the bridge after their MRC passes had been examined, the guards warned that the other end was in the hands of government troops who would demand government permits.
However, when they reached the other end of the long bridgethe Neva was wide at this pointthe Junker sentries were arguing with a large group of workers whom they had stopped, and Lenin and Rahja were able to slip past unnoticed.
They walked on down Liteiny Prospect, turned into Shpalernaya and passed the Tauride Palace. A patrol of mounted Junkers stopped them. Rahja pretended to be drunk and began to argue with themdiverting their attention so that Lenin could move on down the street in the darkness.
When at last they arrived at Smolny, blazing with lights on every floor, there was a large crowd at the entrance. For security reasons, passes were being changed every few hours and many were out of date, as indeed were those of Lenin and Rahja. Lenin and Rahja presented their passes, and the Red Guards on duty promptly refused them admission. But the guards were no longer being very strict in enforcing a badly organized pass system. The crowd was turbulent and jostling. The two men slipped past the guards into the building.
As Lenin entered Smolny, the hour for the uprising was imminent. Are you agreeing to a compromise? were the first words he snapped at Trotsky.
Trotsky realized that Lenin had referred to the newspaper stories that the MRC was negotiating with the government. He smiled and shook his head. We issued that soothing news to the press deliberately, he said. It was only a stratagem to cover the moment of the attack.
Well, that is good, answered Lenin, drawling his words appreciatively. He rubbed his hands in excitementso Trotsky recordedand began to pace up and down the room. That is very good. Then anxiety welled up in him again. Why are the streets so quiet? he demanded.
Trotsky explained that everything was under control. Throughout the city the party was poised to seize power. By daylight the operation would be completed.
The scene on the third floorwhere the executives of the revolution, red-eyed with weariness, were giving orders over the phonepartly calmed Lenins concern at last. He was not witnessing delay or even compromise. Even so, he remained cautious. He did not share Trotskys supreme confidence. Nothing is yet attained, he said and bombarded Trotsky with questions on the details of the planning.
Soon after he had arrived at Smolny, he had taken off his cap and removed the scarf from his face. He continued to wear his wig. It was not until later that Bonch-Bruevich suggested he should take it off. Ill keep it for you, his friend said, adding with a wink, After all, we might still need it. . . .
At two oclock in the morning the operation started. Units of soldiers and workers led by MRC commissars moved through the dark wet streets to take control of the targets to which they had been assigned : the rail stations, the electricity plants, the waterworks, the state bank, the food warehouses. Control of the telephone exchange and the telegraph officewhich had been the object of countermoves by government troops during the eveningwas now established firmly. The phones at the Winter Palace and Military District Headquarters were disconnected.
One by one, the bridges that were not already under full MRC control were taken. There was little fighting now. In most cases, the government troops just surrendered the posts.
At three thirty the Aurora dropped anchor in the middle of the river, her searchlights probing the Nikolaevsky Bridge, one side of which was raised. As at most other points, the Junkers did not resist. Sailors landed from the cruiser and lowered the bridgeand a mass of Red Guards and troops who had been waiting on Vasilevsky Island swarmed across.
In the Winter Palace, Kerensky was meeting with several members of the Cabinet on the crisis when an aide interrupted with the news that Red Guards had seized the telephone exchange and key government buildings, and rebel detachments were approaching Palace Square. Soon Kerensky was to learn that several ships of the Baltic fleet had entered the Neva in battle readiness and that the Aurora was at the Nikolaevsky Bridgewithin easy gunshot of the palace.
The garrison commander proposed a dramatic plan. Why did they not storm Smolny ! They had enough loyal troops. But Kerensky did not believe that this was practical. Furthermore, he had begun to suspect his military staff of treachery. Certainly the uprising had met with little resistance so far. And suddenly Kerensky believed he knew why. His right-wing officersmen who had secretly supported Kornilovwanted Kerensky deposed, for they regarded him as too weak. They did not believe that Lenin would be able to head a government for long. With the entire officer corps behind them, they would then sweep him from power and establish the kind of iron-fisted government for which so many of them hankered.
Kerensky hurried across the square to Staff Headquarters and took over personal control of the government forces. There was little he could do, however. The Cossacks, who were in their barracks, were uncertain. Some of them had voted to stay neutral. Others had pledged their support. Now, however, as Kerensky phoned the barracks repeatedly, he met continual procrastination. We are saddling our horses, he was told several times. But in the event they never mounted them.
By dawn Kerenskys position was serious. Even the Palace Bridge was in the hands of Bolshevik sailors. His telephones had been disconnected, although he still had a direct wire to headquarters at the front that was intact. The Junker military cadets within the Winter Palace had been threatened with dire punishment by the Bolsheviks if they stayed at their posts.
Kerenskys only hope now lay with the troops and Cossacks approaching from the front in response to his emergency call. Soon after daylight he drove out of the city to meet them at Pskov, ordering his driver to proceed at normal speed until they were out of the center of Petersburgso that they would not unduly alert the pickets. The strategy was successful, and though Kerensky was recognized, he was not stopped. Reacting instinctively, some of the Bolshevik troops even snapped to attention.
The situations of the two antagonists from Simbirsk had been dramatically reversed. Now it was Kerensky who was fleeing the city. Soon Lenin would be assuming the role of head of state.
As the information coming into Smolny showed that the city was being brought under control with such ease, Lenin went with Kamenev and a few other comrades to a lower floor. There in Room 36 they began to consider the structure of the new government they were going to form.
Vladimir Ilyich was extremely cheerful and gay, recorded party member A.A. Yoffe. He teased Kamenev about his earlier doubts that even if they could gain power, they could hold it for more than two weeks. Kamenev had now given his support to the party, but he was still uncertain about the future. The taking of one city, even the capital city, was not the whole of Russia.
Never mind, Lenin told him with a grin, when two years pass youll still be saying : We can only hold on for another two years.
Yoffe remarked how good it was that the revolution had been achieved virtually without bloodshed. Immediately, Lenin became serious. Dont be too happy about it, he said. There will still be plenty of blood spilled. Anyone with weak nerves had better resign from the Central Committee at once.
They began to discuss what the new government should be called. Lenin, according to Kamenev, suggested it should be named the Workers and Peasants Government. The title Minister, reminiscent as it was of the old Tsarist regime, would clearly have to be discarded. Why dont we call the new authority the Council of the Peoples Commissars? proposed Kamenev.3
Later, before it was light, Lenin went upstairs to the MRC operations room for the latest reports on the rising. The pace had slowed down. The Winter Palace had not been taken. May I please have an explanation! he demanded of Podvoisky.
Poor Podvoisky, in command of the attack, did not know the reason. He was not getting adequate answers to his telephoned demands for information. In fact, the assault plan, involving eight regiments, large contingents of Red Guards and sailors from both Kronstadt and several warships, was just too large to deploy efficiently in the time allocated to the operation. Small storm groups, similar to those that had taken the other main parts of the city, would probably have captured the palace more easily.
By seven oclock in the morning the assault units were only just beginning to assemble in the streets surrounding Palace Square. The main contingents of sailors had not even arrived in the city. Podvoisky assured Lenin that the assault would be mounted by noonbut it was not. Nor by three oclock in the afternoon, nor even by the evening.
It was fortunate for the Bolsheviks that they faced no serious opposition, for this aspect of the uprising was appallingly badly organized.
It was a cold bitter morning as the people of the city began to absorb the fact that the Bolsheviks controlled it. The yellow streetcars, crowded as always, were running as normal. The shops were open. On the walls were appeals to the people of Petersburg to reject the call to revolt.
In front of the State Bank, troops were standing on guard with bayonets fixed on their rifles. John Reed, in his capacity as a foreign correspondent, approached one of them. What side do you belong to? he asked. The government?
No more government, the soldier answered with a grin. Slava bogu ! Glory be to God !
At ten oclock the MRC issued a proclamation written by Lenin, that was broadcast and also posted on walls throughout the city : The Provisional Government is deposed. All state authority has passed into the hands of the Military Revolutionary Committee. . . . Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants !
Three hours later soldiers and sailors surrounded the Mariinsky Palace where the Pre-Parliament was sitting, and the delegates were ordered to leave. A sailor mounted the rostrum and told the president, No more council. Go along home now.
At two thirty-five the Petersburg Soviet went into session at Smolny, and a triumphant Trotsky announced, In the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee I declare that the Provisional Government has ceased to exist. . . .
As Trotsky was speaking, Leninlooking strange to the delegates without his beardentered the big hall. Applausethin at first, then growing in volume as he was recognizedbegan to sweep through the Soviet.
In our midst, declared Trotsky, is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who, by force of circumstances, has not been able to be with us all this time. . . . Hail the return of Lenin!
There was a roara tumultuous ovationas Lenin stepped forward on the platform. His eyes swept over the crowd of faces before him; his chin thrust forward; his small eyes brightened. The oppressed masses will form a government, he announced. The old state apparatus will be destroyed root and branch and a new administrative apparatus will be created in the form of Soviet organizations. Now begins a new era in the history of Russia and this third Russian Revolution must finally lead to the victory of socialism. . . .
Meanwhile, as darkness enclosed the city, the ministers of Kerenskys government were still in the Winter Palace, stoutly insisting that they had not been deposed. For Lenin, the failure to capture the palace had begun to be a severe embarrassment. For the All-Russian Congress of Soviets that was due to open that evening should be faced with a fait accompli.
By four oclock in the afternoon the streets surrounding Palace Square were crammed with troops, sailors and Red Guards. There were now five naval vessels in the river. Yet four hours later the palace had not been taken, indeed, had not even been attacked although thousands were poised for the assault. Guns from the ships on the river and even from the fortress were trained on the mud-red palace. By contrast, the defense was minimalsome Junkers, a few Cossacks who had opted to fight for the government despite their colleagues refusal and one of the Death Battalions of women that had been mustered into the army during the past few months. One of these female battalions had even been sent to the front lines to serve as an example to the men. But determined as they had been to fight for Mother Russia, the women soldiers had not made much of an impact. Certainly the morale of the soldiers now waiting to defend the palace, eyeing the massed troops and workers at every entrance to the square, was not high.
So why, demanded Lenin in note after note from Smolny, had operations not commenced? Actually there were several reasons : a desire to avoid bloodshed, confusion, but, above all, the fact that the ministers had held a delegation that had entered the palace with a surrender demand as hostages. At last, however, with the help of the nervous troops within the palace, the delegation had escaped.
The assault could now proceed, but the commanders were still hoping they could avoid storming the palace. They had managed to insinuate agitators within it, some dressed as liveried servants, and the infiltrators were pressing the troops to surrender.
The opening of the Congress of Soviets was put back two hours to provide a little more leeway, but in Smolny Lenins anger and impatience were growing. In a furious note he threatened Podvoisky with a court-martial and even a firing squad if he did not order an immediate attack on the palace. At last at nine oclock the crash of guns reverberated over the Neva. They were only blanks fired from the Aurora and the fortress, but they were the signal for a long burst of firing. Machine guns opened up, firing across the square. The troops edged closer, shooting, but they did not charge. Two armored cars lumbered across the square and traversed the front of the palace, firing as they passed.
Men were still jammed in the streets adjoining the empty square, waiting for the order to assault the palace, as the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets finally opened in the ballroom at Smolny at 10:40 P.M. The hall was packed with grim-faced men in the gray military greatcoats worn by many civilians as well as soldiersthough some of them, of course, were delegates from the army. Tobacco smoke obscured the 160-year-old chandeliers, shaped like enormous saucers, that hung from the high ceiling of the pillared hall.
And the chairman, appointed way back in June, was the Menshevik Theodor Dan, who years ago had worked with Lenin on Iskra but was now one of his bitterest foes. Dan rang his chairmans bell for silence. Comrades, he said sadly. The Congress of Soviets is meeting in such unusual circumstances . . . that you will understand why the Central Executive Committee considers it unnecessary to address you with a political speech. . . . At this very moment our party comrades are in the Winter Palace. . . .
Lenin and Trotsky were at that moment in a nearby room which contained no furniture except for a couple of chairs. A blanket and pillows had been laid on the bare floor, and the two men were stretched out restingside by side ; body and soul were relaxing like overtaut strings. . . . We could not sleep so we talked in low voices.
It is interesting that neither was attending the opening of the congressthe formal, if technical, handing over of power to the Soviets that had been at the heart of Bolshevik demands. Lenin did not go to the platform all evening, preferring to wait perhaps until the Winter Palace had fallen and the ministers of the old government were confined in the cells of the Peter and Paul.
Suddenly, one of Lenins sisters ran into the room. Martov is speaking, she said urgently to Trotsky. Theyre asking for you.4
The new presidium had been appointed, and fourteen of the twenty-five members were Bolsheviks. Another seven were left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries. Kamenev was in the chair.
There were angry attacks from the floor and emotional counterattacks. The Bolsheviks were labeled political hypocrites, renegades, impostor delegates. The uprising was a military conspiracy with the aid of the Petersburg Soviet.
The critics were howled down by party members as counterrevolutionists, Kornilovists, provocateurs. Army delegates accused other army delegates of lying about the attitude of the troops.
At one stage a large group of Mensheviks stalked out of the hall to perish with the government in the Winter Palace, to expose their breasts to the machine guns of the terrorists. . . .
They left the Soviet to the accompaniment of catcalls and curses. . . .
Suddenly above the noise of the shouting, the boom of heavy guns was heard through the windows. The fortress artillery had opened up on the Winter Palace with live shells. So, too, had a field gun under the triumphal arch in Palace Square.
Julius Martov, the friend of Lenins youth who had started Iskra with him, demanded the floor. Wracked with consumption, his shoulders were bent, his voice a hoarse croak : Comrades, the civil war is beginning . . . our brothers are being shot down in the streets. . . . The question of power is being settled by means of a military plot organized by one of the revolutionary parties. . . .
Through the noise of cheers and catcalls, he pleaded for the formation of a united democracy, for a coalition government of the socialist parties. Comrades, he insisted hoarsely, we must put a stop to bloodshed.
Trotsky moved forward on the platform to answer him. He had known Martov for fourteen years. Together, they had co-edited Nashe Slovo in Paris. They had quarreled, like so many of the exiles, but they had shared a belief in socialism. But this was the past. Martovs challenge had to be answered with an eye on the future.
We have tempered and hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petersburg workers and soldiers. . . declared Trotsky. Our insurrection has conquered and now you propose to us : Renounce your victory; make a compromise. With whom? I ask : with whom ought we to make a compromise. . . ? your role is played out. Go where you belong from now oninto the rubbish can of history !
Martov, wounded by the virulence of this attack croaked bitterly, Then we will go, and began pushing his way through the crowd on the platform. As he walked out of the hall, he heard Trotskys voice harshly demanding an indictment of the compromisers and their criminal attempt to smash the All-Russian Congress.
By eleven oclock the womens battalion in the Winter Palace had surrendered, and the lull that this caused in the fighting was over. The guns opened up again. John Reed joined the crowd of men waiting for the attack in Morskaya Street which led directly under the triumphal arch into Palace Square. Voices began to give commands and in the thick gloom we made out a dark mass moving forward, silent but for the shuffle of feet and the clinking arms. We fell in with the first ranks. Like a black river, filling all the street, without song or cheer we poured through the Red Arch. . . .
From all sides, Red Guards and troops surged into the enormous square. Halfway across, they checked, formed a rough line by the giant Alexander Column, then charged toward the palace. Its entrances were protected by barricades of firewood, and the attackers clambered over these, expecting to encounter bayonets. But the Junkers who had been posted there had gone. Their abandoned rifles lay in heaps.
Through every door, troops and workers streamed into the palace and charged up the marble staircases. There was little fighting. In one room in the East Wing, according to John Reed, some packing cases had been broken open with gun butts. Comrades, someone shouted. Dont touch anything. This is the property of the people. Looting had been declared a crime by the MRC. At the palace entrances, Red Guards were searching every man who left.
In an inside windowless ivory-paneled room on the second floor the ministers of the Provisional Government waited. They had left their usual conference room with its big windows overlooking the river when the shelling had made it dangerous.
The door burst open to admit a crowd of soldiers, sailors and Red Guards. With them was Antonov-Ovseenko, one of Podvoiskys co-commanders. I am arresting you in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee, he told the ministers and, while the men who were with him jeered at them, proceeded to list their names.
Lenin drove with Bonch-Bruevich to his apartment to spend the night. He was so tired that he fell asleep in the car. The nap must have revived him, for when he got to the apartment, he could not sleep. According to Bonch, who gallantly elected to spend what remained of the night on the sitting-room sofa, the bedroom light remained on for hours. Lenin, he discovered later, was drafting the decree to confiscate private land.
When Lenin emerged from the bedroom in the morning to have a cup of tea with Bonch, he appeared in a jaunty mood. Congratulations on the first day of the socialist revolution, he said. Shortly afterward, he drove back to Smolny.
That Thursday morning, as he entered the massive pillared building of Smolny, his new power was shaky indeed. Kerensky was at Pskov, massing a counterrevolutionary army to march on Petersburg. Before the end of the day several key unionsincluding the railwaymen, the telegraph operators and the postmenwould declare their opposition to the usurping of power by a single party.
Lenin displayed no concern. At a meeting of the party Central Committee Kamenev, and probably Zinoviev, pressed him hard to open the government to socialists of other parties, as Martov had pleaded. This, they argued, would broaden their base and help answer the accusations that they had acquired power by a coup detat rather than with public support. We cant hold on, argued Kamenev. Too much is against us.
But Lenin was firm. We wont give way an inch! he insisted. He would permit no one and nothing to mar his socialist revolution, his world revolution. The compromisers can come in, he said, provided they accept our program. And he proceeded to consider who would be appointed as the first Peoples Commissars as he formed a government.
All day, the operations room of the MRCstill the technical and actual holder of the powerwas a scene of hectic activity. Order after order was issued. Anyone giving any assistance to Kerensky would be punished as having committed a serious crime against the state. Government employees (Kamenevs huge third camp of the petty bourgeoisie) were ordered to continue with their work and threatened with severe penalties if they refused. Death would be the punishment for pillage, disorder or speculation. Priority was to be given to food transport. Capital sentences in the army were abolished.
And most critical of all, an appeal was made to the Cossacks on whom Kerenskys hopes of retaking the city were mainly built : Cossack brothers ! You are being led against Petersburg. They want to force you into battle with the revolutionary workers and soldiers of the capital. . . . Cossack brothers, execute no orders of the enemies of the people. Send your delegates to Petersburg to talk it over with us . . . the All-Russian Congress of Soviets extends to you a fraternal hand. . . .
In Berlin that day, the mood was less taut. For Count Diego von Bergen, the official in charge of political subversion, and his new Foreign Minister, Richard von Kühlmann, the Bolshevik take-over of Petersburg was the crowning success for a policy that the Foreign Office had been conducting since the day Parvus had appeared in the Wilhelmstrasse in January, 1915. The Sealed Train and the millions of marks that had followed it had produced results almost beyond the Germans fondest hopes. For Lenin, as he had promised, must now negotiate peace, and within four months more than 1,000,000 German and Austrian troops would be withdrawn from the Eastern line. In March, Germany would launch a devastating offensive against the Allied line in France with the help of forty-four divisions now facing Russian troops. And Russia itself would be defenseless and subject to whatever course the Kaiser might choose to take.
On the afternoon of November 8, however, the fragility of the thread by which Lenin held power was the main object of discussion among men in the Foreign Office. How could he be sustained? The situation was delicate, as a telegram just received from the embassy in Stockholm outlined clearly : I urgently recommend that all public announcements of amicable agreement with Russia be avoided in the German and Austrian Press. Amicable agreement with imperial states cannot possibly be accepted as a watchword by the Bolsheviks. They can only justify peace with Germany by citing the will of the people and Russias desperate situation. . . .
Kühlmann agreed completely. The view that the utmost moderation should be exercised is shared here, he wired back. The press has been instructed accordingly. To bolster the new regime, 2,000,000 marks were immediately dispatched to Stockholm at the urgent request of the minister thereand a further 15,000,000 marks for political propaganda in Russia was requested from the Treasury.
In Petersburg that evening the delegates to the Congress of Soviets gathered again in Smolnys ballroom. Many of them now carried rifles with bayonets fixed, for the MRC was arming everyone who did not already possess a weapon in view of the expected attack by Kerensky and the forces from the front. This must have pleased Lenin, for it conformed with the concept he had visualized in his room in the Spiegelgasse of the armed proletariat, of rule from below by the people.
This time the delegates had assembled for a practical working session : to approve a new form of government, a council of Peoples Commissars under the presidency of Lenin, that would be responsible to the Congress of Soviets ; to pass into law a decree confiscating without compensation all private land except that owned by peasants and Cossacks ; and, most important of all, to stop the war.
Soon after eight thirty the members of the new Central Executive Committee, Lenin among them, entered the hall to a roar of welcome and took their places on the platform. As always, there was routine business to be processed before the congress could turn to the important issues, a report to be read by Kamenev, as chairman, some points of order, a few short speeches both of complaint and of greetings.
Then Lenin rose and went to the podium, gripping the edge of the reading stand, as John Reed described the scene, letting his little winking eyes travel over the crowd as he stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long-rolling ovation, which lasted several minutes.
When he could make himself heard, he declared, We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order! And there was another overwhelming human roar.
The first thing, Lenin went on, is the adoption of practical measures to realize peace. . . . In a long proclamation, addressed to the peoples and the governments of all the belligerent nations, he proposed a three-month armistice so that negotiations to end the war could take place.
This proposal of peace, Lenin asserted, will meet with resistance from the imperialist governmentswe dont fool ourselves on that score. But we hope that revolution will soon break out in all the belligerent countries; that is why we address ourselves especially to the workers of France, England and Germany. . . .
When Lenin had finished speaking, Kamenev stood up and asked all in favor of the proclamation to hold up their cards. Suddenly, recorded Reed, by common impulse, we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child. Alexandra Kollontai rapidly winked the tears back. The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky. . . .
The incredible metamorphosis of Lenins life had completed its first stage. The man who only thirty-four weeks before had been living in poverty in one room in Zurichs Old Town was now the ruler of Russia. The revolutionary who for years had plotted against the Tsar had now taken his place as head of state.
That night, as the hundreds of delegates to the Congress of Soviets watched in acute consciousness, Lenin executed an event that was unique in the annals of history, one that compared in significance with such occasions as the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede or of the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphiawhich events were, in truth, among its roots. The Bolshevik take-over was to change the way men thought, to create a global power of immense magnitude, to transform the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
It is fascinating to contemplate the delicacy of the timing on which this momentous event depended, to consider what would have happened in Russia if Lenin had not reached Petersburg when he did, if German interests had not for a few short months coincided with his own, if there had been no Sealed Train.
1 Main sources : As for Chapter 15. Also, A. Belyshev, The Shot from the Aurora; V.D. Bonch-Bruevich, Battle Positions in the February and October Revolutions (R), and Lenin in Petersburg and Moscow (R); P. Dashkevich, The October Days; A. Ilin-Genevsky, From the February Revolution to the October Revolution; K. Mekhonoshin, Battle Headquarters of the October Revolution; S. Pestkovsky, About the October Days in Peter (R); N.I. Podvoisky, The Military Revolutionary Committee (R); C. Piontkovsky, Military Revolutionary Committee (R), Recollections About the October Uprising. . . Proletarian Revolution, 1922, No. 10 (R); Kamenev quoted in E.A. Ross, The Russian Bolshevik Revolution.
2 This little story has been questioned by historians as Soviet propagandaas well it may be. But it seems fairly likely that it happened as Rahja reports.
3 Kamenev claimed credit for the title. Trotsky, in his own account, also claimed credit.
4 Trotsky records the speaker as Dan, but it is clear from other sources that it was Martov.