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Historian: the attitude towards the october coup of 1917 is determined by its grave consequences

David Vseviov, History Professor, 10. December 2019

The event of the past, which directly led to the establishment of a regime, whose actions cost the lives of millions of people, cannot be considered good. According to historian David Vseviov, this, in turn, determines the assessment of the October Revolution of 1917. 

David Vseviov. Picture: Siim Lõvi /ERR.

Pivotal historic events are always preceded by a prologue. The case of the October Revolution of 1917, or as it was officially called in the Soviet Union since the end of the 1930s, the Great October Socialist Revolution, is no exception. During the first decade after the event, the upheaval was also referred to as the “October Coup” by the leading Bolsheviks.

More or less at the same time, at the end of the 1930s, a concept of “two revolutions” evolved in Soviet Union’s official historiography, according to which the February event had been a bourgeois-democratic revolution, which had exhausted its purpose in a few months, while the October events had, from the beginning, been a socialist revolution.

The tumultuous events of 1905-1907, triggered by the Russo-Japanese war, alarmingly bruised the foundations of the Czarist rule and could have been a serious warning of the possible developments ahead. Still, the Romanov empire, having celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1913, appeared unwavering, at least on the surface. Even the Bolsheviks were convinced of its stability.

Just a few weeks before the revolution in January 1917, Lenin had expressed a deep conviction when addressing the working-class youth of Zürich, that his contemporaries will not see any revolutionary changes in Russia in the next decades. This assertion refers to the fact, that the émigré leader of the Bolshevik party had neither a real understanding of the developments in Russia nor of the deep-rooted problems that the state had found itself in.

Beginning on 28 July 1914, the First World War caused wave of patriotism and euphoria in Russia. However, devastating defeats in the front and mounting supply issues in the rear led to a sharp rise of discontentment. In the winter of 1916-1917, the authorities failed to provide bread even to the residents of the capital.

Soon the demands for bread grew to political anti-government mass demonstrations, which eventually led to the February revolution and the overthrow of a centuries-old monarchy. Thus the rule of the Romanov dynasty ended and the power went to the Russian Provisional Government, which declared an amnesty to political prisoners, promised to guarantee civil liberties and introduce a local government reform.

However, the political parties that had seized power in February were unable to hold on to it. The prolonged and unsuccessful war was accompanied by numerous problems. Everything was lacking: food, firewood and most importantly, faith in the capabilities of those in power.  As a result, people became overwhelmed with everyday problems, which ultimately led to complete alienation from the state.

Although it was claimed during the Soviet period, that the Provisional Government was overthrown as a result of an armed uprising, fewer people lost their lives (at least in the capital) during the siege of power than during the February events. It was also declared that the public’s full support secured the October Revolution’s success. It is far more appropriate to characterise people’s reaction to yet another power shift (the composition of the so-called Provisional Government changed several times) with words like “indifference” and “aloofness”. Consequently, the forces supporting the Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace on 26 October (7 November) and arrested the members of the Provisional Government.

To be precise, the government was referred to as “Provisional Government” because it was the Constituent Assembly that was supposed to decide on the future of Russia’s political arrangements. This idea was so popular among people that the Bolsheviks, who had come to power, were unable to give it up. However, as Bolsheviks were defeated in the Constituent Assembly elections, they soon decided to dissolve the Assembly altogether. 

Compared to Petrograd, those aspiring to seize power in Moscow were met with stronger resistance. The battles in the city lasted for several days and took the lives of a few hundred people. There were also a sizable number of citizens that passively resisted the new regime. In Petrograd alone, approximately 50 000 civil servants and employees of private enterprises stopped fulfilling their duties. 

The success of the Bolsheviks has been explained by several objective circumstances. Those that had seized power, and the majority of the people, shared mutual interests for a brief period. The Bolshevik’s wish to stop the war and give land to the farmers was the common ground between the two groups.

Some historians argue that the success of the Bolsheviks was far from predestined. It merely became possible due to the inaction of the government which had all the opportunities to stop it. The leader of the Provisional Government, Kerensky, and several cabinet members at the time were convinced that Bolshevik demonstration will meet the same fate as the demonstration in July, when the attempt of a coup was fairly easily suppressed.

The first decision of the Soviet government after the coup on 26 October (8 November) was to close down some opposition newspapers. A decree that regulated the activity of the press published on the next day claimed that if normal societal conditions are restored, the decision will be reversed. Despite that, the monopoly of truth that the Communist Party sought to establish prevailed until perestroika and glasnost. 

Thousands of analyses in different genres were published during the Soviet era about the events of the October coup and the “heroes” of those days: collections of documents, fiction, memoirs, films etc. Vladimir Lenin was called the main architect of the Great October Socialist Revolution throughout the period. His companions, however, tended to change, according to the outcomes of the power struggle.

Lev Trotsky, who was given a pivotal role in the events of 25-26 October, stood steadfast next to Lenin in written as well as oral recollections in the first few years after the coup. Such role division was confirmed by Stalin in his article in “Pravda”, published on the first anniversary of the revolution. He noted that in the case of the events of 1917 “we must first and foremost be thankful to comrade Trotsky”.

Stalin deservedly highlighted the fact, that the coup was a success thanks to the swift actions of Trotsky, resulting with the Bolsheviks declaring control over the garrison of Petrograd. Nonetheless, in a few years, during an internal power struggle in the party, Stalin announced conversely, that Trotsky did not play any role in the revolution. As is known from a later period, Trotsky became the main enemy of the Soviet regime and trotskyism a criminal way of thinking, whose disciples were to be eliminated.     

Since the 1930s, Stalin had become the main hero of the October Revolution. It is clear from the October-themed films, that in the Lenin-Stalin duo, the latter is visually given a leading role. Several ideas that profoundly influenced life in the Soviet Union (e.g. the necessity to electrify the state) reached the viewers through Stalin’s mouth, while Lenin’s role was to merely nod in agreement.

During the reign of Nikita Khrushchev however, Stalin was cut out of earlier films.

The disappearance of several important figures, who had participated in October events, from the memory of future generations, was strongly supported by official Soviet history, which as an official narrative of party history shaped a suitable account of the events of 1917 to later authorities.

Opinions regarding the events of October (November) 1917 vary greatly. According to the analysis of some authors, the events were a national catastrophe, which ended a normal, centuries-long growth of Russia, and led to a devastating civil war and underdevelopment compared to other advanced countries, and to the establishment of a criminal totalitarian system.

According to the authors that share this point of view, a cynical and power-hungry clique led by Lenin used a favourable chance and violently forced their will on a passive nation. This point of view coincides with the conception of the so-called “German funding” – the Bolsheviks were financed via the intelligence of the German Empire, which was at the time at war with Russia.  

The Soviet historiography, naturally, had the opposite point of view (which still exists today). According to this, the coup had been the most progressive step in human history, which had enabled the feudal relics and the injustices of capitalist establishment to be overcome, and the development of a happy society to begin. Supposedly, although this path had its drawbacks (the excesses of the Stalin-era repressions), the course taken during the October Revolution of 1917 was entirely appropriate. According to those that share this point of view, the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century turned out to be the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

It is difficult to judge the course of history in opposing categories such as “good” and “bad”. Yet, this event of the past, which directly led to the establishment of a regime, whose actions cost the lives of millions of people, cannot be considered good. This, in turn, determines the assessment of the October Revolution of 1917. 

David Vseviov is a professor of history at the Estonian Academy of Arts