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Glorious revolution or illegitimate coup? Busting the myth of Red October, 10. November 2021

Renowned historian of the Russian Revolution Orlando Figes wrote “Few historical events have been more profoundly distorted by myth than those of 25 October 1917”. But how was it that the Bolshevik October uprising, more of a coup d’état than a revolution, came to be known as the “Great October Socialist Revolution”? investigates how and why historical myth-making has resulted in counterfactual portrayals of October, and how such false history can be refuted.

“The time for words has passed!” the Bolshevik revolutionary declared onstage to the thunderous applause of Petrograd crowds. Guns blazed and blood was spilled in street fighting as revolutionaries struggled against a war-hungry Government. A signal was given from  the cruiser Aurora to commence the assault on the Winter Palace, where the bourgeoise Provisional Government sheltered from the coming red tide. “Peace!” Bread! Land!” the crowd chanted as it spilled into the streets and joined the uprising.

This was not what happened in the October Revolution of 1917. Rather, it is the imaginative dramatisation of the 1928 Soviet film October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Such depictions of the Bolshevik coup, which deposed the Provisional Government that had replaced the Tsarist monarchy just months earlier, were a staple of Soviet propaganda campaigns and persist to this day. They have, however, very little basis in historical fact, and exemplify how rigid ideological beliefs can corrupt the composition of history”.

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Fig. 1: A still from Sergei Eisenstein’s influential film October: Ten Days That Shook the World. The film popularised the myth that it was hordes of the Petrograd working class, as opposed to a few groups of woefully disorganised, Bolshevik-loyal Red Guards and sailors, who overthrew the Provisional Government. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Myth

October might have popularised this conceptualisation of the Revolution as involving hordes of proletarian rebels, but it was certainly not alone. For instance, a 1920 re-enactment of the so-called ‘Storming of the Winter Palace’ in Petrograd by theatre director Nikolai Evreinov also shaped the imagery surrounding October for decades to come.

A photograph depicting a rehearsal for this event, which involved over 10,000 extras was, over the years, doctored to exclude the audience and the director’s tower and passed off as an authentic image of the uprising. Amusingly, a red star visible above a palace balcony, a dead giveaway about when the photograph was taken, was never removed.

This ‘mass uprising’ legend was the founding myth of the Soviet Union. It tells of a revolt that was a clear expression of the frustrations of Russia’s working classes with the ruling elite. Tired of the never-ending war against the Central Powers, the Bolsheviks were acting on a popular consensus that ‘bourgeois democracy’ had failed and must give way to a truly proletarian government: the world’s first workers’ state.

The insurrection, it is maintained, was a result of brilliant planning and execution. Those leading the revolt were supposedly highly-organised revolutionaries, capably coordinated by Vladimir Lenin. This description suited both pro-Bolshevik narratives and those of the defeated Government and its supporters. Either Lenin, saviour of the working class, was a masterful tactician who methodically toppled the Government, or he was a conniving, evil genius who outwitted it.

‘Red October’ was the linchpin of Soviet historiography, education, and culture. November 7 was the USSR’s principal national holiday. This sublime myth remained largely static throughout most of the Soviet era, though official views towards key figures aside from Lenin often fluctuated in accordance with the ever-changing political agendas of the regime. Leon Trotsky, whose importance was revised by his political opponent Stalin after the latter won the struggle to succeed Lenin, is one such example. All research into the historical events, where it was even permitted, was subordinated to strict censorship.

Only in the relatively liberal Gorbachev era (1985-1991) did Bolshevik conduct in 1917 finally come under scrutiny. The February Revolution began to be seen as the ‘real’ revolution, while the October ‘coup’ was denounced as having sabotaged Russia’s chances for a prosperous future.

Today, counterfactual history about 1917 is sustained, at least in part, by fringe (often Western) socialist groups. The regime established in 1917 is looked upon fondly by such supporters as “the most progressive government in modern history”, a product of a clear ‘democratic’ consensus. This view has it that it was the Soviets themselves, guided by the Bolsheviks, who seized power in October. The controversial aspects of this “workers’ democracy” are dismissed as “fake news”, and the Revolution more generally is distinguished from the Stalinist ‘deviation” that followed. Contrastingly, the Russian Federation Government of today has distanced itself from October anniversary celebrations in favour of “Unity Day”, a more nationalist-focused holiday with less revolutionary undertones. This day (November 4) commemorates the liberation of Moscow from Polish-Lithuanian invaders in 1612. This decision is reflective of a relative disinterest in and apathy towards the 1917 revolutions among the Russian populace, especially younger generations.

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Fig. 2: A doctored photograph of a rehearsal for Nikolai Evreinov’s theatrical re-enactment of the so-called ‘Storming of the Winter Palace’ (1920), which was subsequently passed off as an authentic image of the Bolshevik coup of 1917. Source: Wikipedia Commons


The Ideology

These convictions about October cannot be separated from Marxist-Leninist ideology. Soviet historiography described the Revolution, in Marxist terms, as a “natural” and “scientific” culmination of events. Similarly, Marxist-Leninists today point to crises in the Western liberal system as proof that humanity ought to follow the example set by Russia’s radical workers a century ago. This sentiment fuels the persistence of false history about October in the present day.

Surprisingly, it extends to academia and historical writing around 1917. The Bolshevik-sympathetic interpretations of October often study the events to ‘learn from’ its shortcomings in shaping future revolutions. Images of red flags and charismatic leaders, guiding the determined-but-somewhat-obtuse masses towards a brighter future, make for an alluring tale for those disillusioned with the liberal world order. They are, however, simply untrue.

The Rupture

The coup was not initiated “on behalf of the Soviet”, as Lenin declared, but rather on behalf of the Bolsheviks. The Military Revolutionary Committee, the officially Soviet-controlled body responsible for coordinating revolutionary military activities, was really subordinated to the Bolsheviks, functioning as political cover to give the coup a semblance of popular support.

The decision to forcibly seize power fractured the Left in Russia. It also bypassed two important representative bodies; the forthcoming All-Russian Congress of Soviets, a congregation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, and the Russian Constituent Assembly, which was to be elected in late November, tasked with forming a democratic government in Russia. Lenin was adamant about toppling the Government without approval from these bodies precisely because he knew the Bolsheviks would face severe opposition from them. To delay on account of ‘bourgeois democracy’, he claimed, would be “lunacy” and “a sheer formality”.

These fears would be vindicated. The Soviet Congress convened on November 7 as the coup was underway. Just hours before, Stalin and Trotsky had been denying rumours that the Bolsheviks were planning a coup. The Bolsheviks were heavily censured by the Mensheviks and moderate Socialist Revolutionary (SR) delegates for their “criminal venture”, which they correctly predicted would thrust Russia into a civil war. It was only after a number of opposition members walked out in protest, taking with them practically any hope of an organised political opposition to the Bolshevik dictatorship, that the (now Bolshevik-dominated) Congress elected to sanction the transfer of power ‘to the Soviets’.  

As for the Constituent Assembly, the elections did not yield the majority the Bolsheviks had been hoping for. Winning only 24% of the vote, they were thoroughly outclassed by the SRs, who had greater appeal to Russia’s more populous rural areas. The Bolsheviks simply dissolved the elected body mere hours into its first meeting. Russia would not again see free elections until 1989.

Such swift, anti-democratic action against opponents of the coup contradict the myth of the ‘mass uprising from below’. Yet, they do not diverge from Bolshevik political doctrine. The Bolsheviks genuinely believed that by subverting “bourgeois” democracy, they were executing the will of the masses. As historian Laura Engelstein noted: "From Lenin's perspective… popular revolution had to be an act of conquest; it did not have to be an act of mass participation”.

Still, the coup was contentious even among the Bolsheviks themselves. The prevailing view of the leadership was that power should be obtained through cooperation with the exact existing political institutions that Lenin sought to defy. Two of Lenin’s oldest comrades, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, opposed him on the matter at a Central Committee meeting on October 10. Lenin’s argumentative skills and forceful personality still won him the vote and thus, in the words of Lenin biographer Victor Sebestyen, he “dragged his reluctant and frightened comrades with him towards an uprising most of them did not want”.

And what of the proletariat themselves, in whose name this revolution was being waged? It is true that the Bolsheviks had vastly expanded their urban support base in the preceding months, especially among the soldiery and workers of Petrograd and Moscow. In the lead up to October, the Party’s membership had grown to exceed 350,000, and on September 1 it had, through a coalition with the Left SRs, won a small majority on the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. Popular support for their cause was driven largely by the waning popularity of the Provisional Government as economic crisis and war weariness plagued the empire.

Yet, this did not translate to a ‘mass participatory’ coup. The Petrograd garrison did not support an armed uprising against the Government, despite its vehement opposition to Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky. Many Petrograd workers found the very idea of a Bolshevik uprising frightening, even those that were Party members. Previous popularist action against the Government had ended in serious repressions, and many feared for their job security.

Some workers even took active steps to oppose the coup, which they viewed as an illegitimate seizure of power. An unsuccessful attempt was made by the railway union Vikzhel, supported by hundreds of factory and armed forces assemblies, to pressure the Bolsheviks to cooperate with other socialist parties, rather than institute one-party rule as they intended. As these negotiations were taking place, a delegation of the revolutionary Putilov Mill workers stormed in and, in support of such a compromise, declared “We will not tolerate the continuation of civil war… To hell with Lenin and [the Socialist Revolutionary] Chernov! Hang them both! . . . We say to you: stop being destructive. Or else we’ll deal with you ourselves!”

Ultimately, however, the prevailing mood was not so much strong opinion for or against Bolshevism. Rather, it was one of apathy. Though the coup was hardly welcomed by the fragmented Russian army, none were willing to stand and fight for the tottering Provisional Government. As an old patron of Kerensky, Zinaida Gippius, wrote in her diary: "Nobody wants the Bolsheviks, but nobody is prepared to fight for Kerensky either".

Given this general lack of enthusiasm for the coup, it is reasonable to question who exactly took part in it. The few surviving photographs of the event exhibit, far from the epic, crowded street battles of legend, a small number of rebels wandering around largely deserted streets. Few actual workers in Petrograd participated, and the factories, transport systems, and restaurants functioned largely as normal.

The fabled ‘storming of the Winter Palace’ was, in reality, an underwhelming, laughable display of the putschists’ ineptitude. Despite having lost key strategic positions across the city to Bolshevik forces, those Government ministers remaining in the palace refused to surrender. Lenin ordered the bombardment of the palace. No bombardment, however, was forthcoming. The captured guns in the Peter and Paul Fortress were museum pieces that had not been fired in years, and when lighter guns were found and heaved into position, the correct size shells for them could not be found. Later, the incompetent gunners discovered the first group of guns simply needed cleaning.

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Fig. 3: The few remaining Provisional Government forces in the Winter Palace await the Bolshevik assault. There was no epic battle for control of the palace, as is commonly believed. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Meanwhile, even the seemingly elementary task of raising a red lantern atop the fortress flagpole, signalling the beginning of the bombardment and ground assault on the palace, was proving to be beyond the putschists’ capacities. No red lantern could be found, and when the Bolshevik commander Georgii Blagonravov left to find one, he found himself lost in a muddy bog. He eventually returned, but only with a purple lantern that could not even be fixed to the flagpole. The heroic revolutionaries promptly abandoned the task, and no signal was given.     

In the end, the coup only succeeded because the Government was even more inadequate. Their ‘defence’, drawn from an armed forces pool of some nine million, consisted of a few hundred ill-organised troops whose discipline, already lax to begin with, rapidly collapsed as Bolshevik victory drew nearer. Most spent their time smoking and drinking. They slowly melted away, either because the situation was becoming hopeless, or because they were not fed properly and sought to occupy the various restaurants across the city rather than the besieged seat of their government. In the end, the palace sustained only a chipped cornice and a shattered window in damages.

Even less favourable to the mythology is the unscrupulous conduct of the rebels. Drunkenness, hooliganism, and random acts of violence and murder (especially against ‘class enemies’, usually well-dressed citizens just going about their business) were widespread. They helped themselves to the Tsar’s wine cellar as the palace fell, and when the wine was dumped outside to prevent further drunkenness, drank straight from the gutter. One police precinct alone reported 182 arrests on the night of November 4, so many that there was no room left in the cells.

The Bolsheviks blamed such displays on “the provocations of the bourgeoisie”, but it is clear that their “disciplined vanguard of the proletariat”, had other, less revolutionary motivations. Despite their high-minded rhetoric about arming the working class against their oppressors, the Bolsheviks were unable to effectively command disciplined fighters against the detested Provisional Government.

Myth Busted

The divine myth of ‘Red October’ is rather easy to dismantle with an exposition of transparent historical fact. The Bolshevik coup was neither ‘mass’ nor ‘democratic’, and it was certainly not a masterpiece of clockwork planning. Its consequences, namely a catastrophic civil war and decades of totalitarian rule, were far-reaching, and though some continue to defend it as both ‘justified’ and ‘necessary’, this ‘great revolution’ was anything but.   

List of Sources

Edele, Mark. “Why should you care about the Russian Revolution?”. Australian Book Review, no.395 (October 2017).

Engelstein, Laura. Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

Kolonitskii, Boris and Yisrael Elliot Cohen. “Russian Historiography of the 1917 Revolution: New Challenges to Old Paradigms?” History and Memory 21, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2009): 34-59.

Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Schlögel, Karl. “Beyond the Horizon: The Russian Revolution Seen from Afar”. In The Russian Revolution as Ideal and Practice: Failures, Legacies, and the Future of Revolution, edited by Thomas Telios, Dieter Thomä, and Ulrich Schmid, 21-34. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Schmid, Ulrich. “German and Jewish Conspiracies: The October Revolution from the Perspective of the Italian Fascists and the German National Socialists”. In The Russian Revolution as Ideal and Practice: Failures, Legacies, and the Future of Revolution, edited by Thomas Telios, Dieter Thomä, and Ulrich Schmid, 129-141. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Sebestyen, Victor. Lenin the Dictator. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017.

Westwood, J.N. Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History, 1812-1992, Fourth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.