Year One of the October Revolution, One Hundred Years On

A look at the ground covered, and lost, in the Revolution’s first 12 months and at what, on November 7, 1918, seemed to lie ahead.

By the time its first anniversary came along, the October Revolution had morphed into the November Revolution, for, on January 24, 1918, Vladimir Lenin had signed into law a SOVNARKOM guidance notifying Russia’s migration to the Gregorian (from the Julian) calendar, effective February 14 that year.

Years later, in exile in Prinkipo and never again to return to the country he – along with Lenin – had led through the Revolution, Leon Trotsky was somewhat ambivalent about this change:

The calendar itself, we see, is tinted by the events (such as the February revolution which, in the new system, shifted to March; or the “April Days” – now transformed into the May uprising – which had witnessed armed demonstrations against the provisional government), and the historian cannot handle revolutionary chronology by mere arithmetic. The reader will be kind enough to remember that before overthrowing the Byzantine calendar, the revolution had to overthrow the institutions that clung to it.

The man who had spearheaded some of the most memorable attacks on the institutions of Tsarist Russia belonged to the generation that saw itself tied to October by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord. Hence that whiff of wistfulness here, though Trotsky, as much as anyone else, knew that the switch to the Western calendar was a profound change in itself: backward Russia, that curious blend of the Orient and the Occident, had now announced its arrival upon the stage of the European revolution. But the year 1918 was so chock-full of monumental changes that the new calendar got barely talked about in post-October Russia.

It was also in 1918 that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik) christened itself the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), the first communist party anywhere in the world. But even this change seemed not much more than cosmetic when one considered the tumultuous events that shook the young socialist state in the first year of its life.

Also read: The House Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lived in Before he Became Lenin

And what a year 1918 proved to be! Acutely aware that their hold on state power was precarious at best, the Bolsheviks set about standing conventional Russian statecraft on its head, deliberately and with feverish energy, and restructuring the country’s political economy radically. On November 8, his first day in office as the chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (the word ‘minister’ sounded hateful, and someone chanced upon ‘commissar’ instead), Lenin introduced the Decree on Peace, an audacious call to all the participants of the Great War to settle for “a just and democratic peace… without annexations and indemnities”.

The Decree notified all the warring nations of Russia’s intention of withdrawing from the Great War with immediate effect, and called upon all “the wearied, tormented and war-exhausted toilers and warring masses of all belligerent countries” to make similar demands of their own governments.

The historic Decree on Land, also authored by Lenin himself, was approved the same day, abolishing all existing “landed proprietorship” and redistributing landed estates, “as also all crown, monastery and church lands”, among the peasantry. Decrees on civic rights, workers’ control of industry, nationalisation of banks, civil marriages and divorce rights, economic planning and a reformed judicial system followed in quick succession.

Remarkably, within its first few days in power, the new government legislated on unemployment insurance, the complete insulation of the state from religion and the right to recall elected people’s representatives. All hereditary privileges, titles and estates were scrapped and freedom of the press was guaranteed. The Economic Planning Council, tasked with charting out a course for the socialist reconstruction of an economy ravaged by war and shortages, was put in place.

Incredibly, in the two months of November-December 1917, 25 major laws had passed the Congress of the Soviets. Ever the hard-nosed realist Lenin was intent on creating a trail in socialist statecraft for posterity’s benefit. For all of 1918 and even later, the Russian Revolution lived from day to day, and Lenin was determined that, in the event that they went under, the Bolsheviks would leave behind them a roadmap for future revolutions. If, in the Party’s 7th Congress in March 1918, he did not forget to mention that the Russian Revolution had already lived longer than the Paris Commune of March-May, 1871, it was only that he wanted his comrades to never lose their sense of history.                       

Joseph Stalin, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And yet, circumstances soon threatened to overwhelm the revolution. The Axis Powers proposed to the fledgling Soviet government a peace not merely humiliating, but catastrophic for the young state. The Bolsheviks’ hopes of awakening the revolutionary internationalism of the German working class – who, they hoped, would force the Kaiser’s hands to settle for an honourable peace with the Soviet republic – were dashed as German social democracy remained bogged in the quagmire of ‘national interest’.

For Russia, exhausted and emaciated from the long years of war and revolution, there remained no option other than signing the truly scandalous Brest Litovsk treaty. After the negotiations dragged on endlessly and stalled repeatedly while the Germans kept presenting the Russians with steadily harsher terms, Lenin, in the face of the stiffest resistance inside the party, prevailed upon the majority of the leadership to accept the peace terms in March 1918. It was a most demoralising diplomatic defeat, and Russia lost over 1.3 million square miles of her pre-war territory, with Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) as well as parts of the Caucasus going out of her borders.

The blow to Russia’s economy was even more telling: in one fell swoop, the country lost over 40% of the aggregate grain harvest, 75% of the iron and coal reserves and nearly 30% of the heavy industries.  As the crippling Civil War set in soon thereafter, 60% of the country’s railway infrastructure also fell in enemy hands and inflation soared to over 20% per month. The great October Revolution seemed to be unravelling rapidly.

Also read: The Revolution and Russian Imperialism

The germs of the Civil War had always lain dormant inside the Revolution’s very flesh and blood, in the political matrix of the social forces fighting for its soul. The Kadets, the Mensheviks and the Right Socialist Revolutionaries, all part of the provisional government installed after the February Revolution, found themselves arraigned against the October Revolution. Each party claimed unwavering loyalty to democracy and/or socialism, and each felt cheated out of legitimate power when the Bolsheviks mobilised militant workers and soldiers in massive numbers, captured the Soviets, and dislodged the Alexander Kerensky government which, by its pathetic dithering on the critical issues of war, peace and food, had brought Russia to the brink of ruin.

Liberals, the middle classes and peasant interests were variously represented in these political formations, and the dramatic events of October had left them deeply hostile. The nobility, big business and the army, traditional strongholds of political reaction, loathed the Bolsheviks and openly bayed for their blood.

Armed insurrections started appearing here, there and everywhere. Soon enough, army and Cossack leaderships began to mobilise an all-out war against the Soviets. Barely a week after October, a Cossack regiment, led by General Pyotr Krasnov and instigated by Kerensky, began to march on the capital.

After a desperate battle at the Pulkovo Heights just outside Petrograd, the Cossacks were beaten back by a rag-tag army of the Red Guard. Krasnov was arrested – and released after a few days, for the new regime had yet to fully come to terms with the dangers that it faced. Krasnov later became a star operator of White Terror. Generals Alexander Kolchak, Anton Denikin, Nikolai Yudenich and Pyotr Wrangel – all veterans of the Imperial Tsarist Army – rose against the republic, quickly seized vast swathes of the Russian territory, and installed themselves as rulers and quickly became bastions of counter-revolution.

The Cossack supremo, Alexey Kaledin, held sway over vast tracts of the Don basin. After Brest Litovsk, the Allied armies of France, Britain and the US also decided to join the anti-Soviet coalition, claiming that Lenin’s government had betrayed the Allies’ cause by walking out of the war unilaterally. The fact that the Bolsheviks had openly repudiated Tsardom’s mammoth financial debts served to infuriate the Allies still more. Fearing a concerted attack on Petrograd, Lenin persuaded the Party to move the capital back to Moscow after 200 years.

Trotsky at Brest Litovsk.

On nearly every front, there was chaos. Indeed, while economic output per head fell by 20% between 1913 and 1917, between 1917 and 1919 it fell by a staggering 50%. Cultivated land shrunk to 62% of the pre-1914 levels even after Germany’s defeat in the War in November, 1918 had the effect of annulling the Brest Litovsk treaty, returning much of Russia’s lost land area (barring Finland and Poland) to her. The harvest yield fell by 63%.

As the Civil War raged in Siberia, the Ukraine and elsewhere, the predominantly agricultural country lost over 12 million horses and more than 21 million heads of cattle. Hunger stalked the cities and the peasantry, unable to procure items of daily necessity for cash or for barter, cut back on grain production beyond subsistence levels. Food riots broke out often, and the government’s attempts to forcibly requisition food from the country-side further alienated it from rural Russia. Industrial production overall declined to as low as 15% vis-a-vis the pre-war years. Even as late as in 1921, the gross output of the mining and industrial sectors stood at barely a fifth of the 1913 levels. The rouble plunged to 1,200 to a dollar in 1920, the 1914 value having roughly been half a dollar.

Sabotage was rampant. The State Bank downed its shutters immediately after the Revolution and its officers defied the government’s every order. Finally, at gun-point, a member of Lenin’s cabinet secured five million roubles from the bank’s coffers for paying salaries. The railway unions, long the preserve of the Mensheviks, refused to ferry Soviet troops and supplies to the front. The ‘liberal’ press kept up its vicious anti-Bolshevik rhetoric up until May, 1918 when an exasperated administration clamped down on such shenanigans.

Also read: Alternative Dreams of the Russian Revolution

In July, Left Socialist-Revolutionaries assassinated Count Wilhelm von Mirbach, the German ambassador, in Petrograd, plunging the Soviet government into a major diplomatic crisis. Soon, Adolf Joffe, the Russian ambassador in Berlin, was also expelled. A beleaguered government then set up the Cheka, the ‘secret police’ authorised to combat counter-revolution and sabotage. As often happens with an internal security apparatus, the Cheka’s remit began getting wider, its powers more formidable. Every act of counter-revolutionary violence induced violent reprisals from the Cheka. Red Terror now confronted White Terror.              

There were rumblings within Lenin’s party as well. Many senior leaders, including Nikolai Bukharin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, resigned from the central committee protesting against the Brest Litovsk ‘capitulation’. There were serious disagreements over economic planning, particularly agrarian policy and modes of capital accumulation. The Revolution was coping with it all – but only just.

Then on August 30, tragedy struck. Mossei Uritsky, a brilliant young member of the central committee, died to a right-wing assassin’s bullet in Petrograd. The same afternoon, Fanny Kaplan, a Socialist-Revolutionary, made an attempt on Lenin’s life as he was walking out, unattended, of a Moscow factory workers’ meeting. She shot at Lenin thrice, one of the bullets catching him on his neck, injuring him seriously. This was the second murder attempt on Lenin’s life. The security threat to the Revolution had been brought home with stunning immediacy.

Also read: Leon Trotsky, the Socialist Who Dreamt of the Full Human Life Even at His Nadir

The Bolsheviks now felt hemmed in from all sides. On top of it all, the prospects of an European revolution (on which they had pinned their fervent hopes) had never looked so bleak. Lenin, an ardent champion of the democratically-elected constituent assembly, dissolved the same assembly in January when he found that the Right S-Rs were leveraging their majority in the assembly to subvert all governmental functioning. Democracy and a free press seemed to be unaffordable luxuries in the straitened circumstances and, before the Bolsheviks knew it, their Revolution had begun its descent into authoritarianism.

The sixth All-Russian Congress of Soviets met in an extraordinary session on November 6-9, 1918, to take on record the Revolution’s report card. Lenin delivered two important speeches here: one to mark the Revolution’s first anniversary, and the other to survey the international situation.

In the first, while recapitulating some of the Revolution’s stunning successes, he said:

…We have already realised that it was not on account of any merit of the Russian proletariat or that it was in advance of the others that we happened to begin the revolution….On the contrary, it was only because of the peculiar weakness and backwardness of capitalism, and the peculiar pressure of military strategic circumstances, that we happened … to move ahead of other detachments, while not waiting until they had caught us up. We are now making this review so as to take stock of our preparations for the battles that will face us in the coming revolution.

The second speech was a stark reminder of the important cross-roads that at the moment Russia stood at:

…(I)f we have never previously been so close to world revolution, then it is also true that we have never been in such a dangerous situation as we are now.

As always, his astringent realism guided the Revolution’s tallest leader to a clear choice: either save October, or allow it to perish with the knowledge that there would not be another October in the foreseeable future. Lenin knew that the Bolsheviks had to soldier on. The greatest realist among revolutionaries knew that it was impossible to be a revolutionary without also being a dreamer. The dream of world revolution had not forsaken Lenin and his comrades yet.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator based out of Bangalore. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.

Join The Discussion