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May 1917 – Provisional Government weak but revolutionary movement not yet able to take power

The fourth in our series on the timeline of events of 1917 (Dates are given in the old style Julian calendar used in Russia at the time. This was 13 days earlier than the Gregorian calendar, adopted in Russia in 1918).

The situation is one of dual power: the weakness of the Provisional Government is becoming increasingly clear; the revolutionary movement not yet able to take control. Right-wing social democrats are poised to join a coalition with the capitalist and pro-tsarist establishment. At the same time, the Bolsheviks are strengthening their political position – following Lenin’s return from exile – putting forward a clearer socialist alternative and gaining ground.

May 1917

1: The Petrograd Soviet executive votes in favour of the formation of the coalition government – 41 for, 18 against, with three abstentions – the Bolsheviks and Menshevik-Internationalists vote against.

2: The foreign minister Pavel Miliyukov resigns, a consequence of mass protests against his fulsome support of the allies’ first world war aims (the ‘Miliyukov note’).

4: Leon Trotsky, Natalya Sedova and their sons, Lev and Sergei, arrive in Petrograd from exile in New York and imprisonment in Canada. The All-Russia Soviet of Peasant Deputies is established.

5: The second Provisional Government is formed, with prince Georgy Lvov president and Alexander Kerensky war minister. It is a coalition including six ‘socialist’ ministers (two Mensheviks, two Social Revolutionaries, two others) out of 15. At the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky warns the working class against having illusions in the establishment politicians – that it must rely on its own strength as part of an international revolutionary movement. This puts him firmly in Lenin’s camp. The Soviet, still led by Mensheviks and SRs, votes to back the government – the Bolsheviks mobilise 100 votes against.

7: A meeting to celebrate his return from exile brings together Trotsky’s Inter-District Organisation (Mezhraiontsy), the Bolsheviks, and Maxim Gorky’s group, the United Internationalists. The meeting denounces the counter-revolutionary nature of the coalition government, criticises its backing by the Petrograd Soviet, while recognising that the soviets are “the only possible, the only real form of people’s revolutionary power”. It resolves to win the soviets to a socialist and internationalist programme.

11: Kerensky visits the front to start preparations for a new war offensive in June.

14: Kerensky inadvertently sums up the impotence of liberal politicians in the face of imperialist pressure to intensify the war – and from the revolutionary masses to end it – when addressing troops: “You will carry on the points of your bayonets, peace!”

17: The Kronstadt Soviet announces that it is taking control of the surrounding area.

22: General Brusilov is appointed head of the army to execute the June offensive.

25: An All-Russia SR congress gets underway.

30: The first congress of factory and shop committees begins in Petrograd.

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