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Russian revolution timeline – From February revolution to Lenin’s ‘April Theses’

February 1917

Throughout the course of 2017, we will update a monthly timeline, beginning here with February 1917, when the revolution began.

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).

Conditions in Russia are horrific, with extreme and widespread poverty. The dictatorial monarchy under Tsar Nicholas II pursues its ruinous part in the first world war as an ally of British and French imperialism. The war would claim twelve million Russian casualties (killed, wounded or captured). War-related industry drew millions of peasants into the factories – the workforce in Moscow grew by a tenth every year of the war, and that of Petrograd, the Russian capital, by 20% a year.

On 9 January 1917, 150,000 workers demonstrate in Petrograd, 30,000 in Moscow, 14,000 in the Baku oilfields, and 10,000 in Kharkov, Ukraine, to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the massacre of protesters which triggered the revolution of 1905. Strikes, protests and food-queue riots escalate throughout January and February.

Bolshevik Party membership has risen to over 20,000 by early February, but its main leaders are in prison or exile: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Grigory Zinoviev in Zürich, Switzerland; Alexandra Kollontai and Nikolai Bukharin in New York City – as was Leon Trotsky (not yet a member of the Bolsheviks).

February 1917

19: The tsar’s regime announces food rationing.

23: On international women’s day (8 March in the Gregorian calendar), 7,000 low-paid women textile workers – many of whose brothers, husbands and sons had been conscripted into the army – take to the streets of Petrograd demanding bread. By ten o’clock, 20,000 are on strike, 50,000 by midday. In the afternoon, men from engineering factories join in, taking the total number of strikers to over 90,000. The February revolution has begun.

24: Strikes escalate, with 180,000 now out in the capital. To the demand for bread, calls are added for an end to war and authoritarian rule. The tsar calls in the police, a paramilitary force which, alongside Cossacks, numbers 12,000.

25: The strike swells to 240,000, including 40,000 engineering workers from the giant Putilov factory. Smaller workplaces are shut down, shops close, trams stop. University and high-school students join the protests. The police are beaten back as Cossacks and soldiers waver – not always backing the police, not yet won over to the movement.

26: A Sunday. Petrograd city centre is under military occupation, yet the workers continue to assemble. The tsar has ordered that the movement is put down by force – around 1,400 people are killed in the course of the week. Police conduct mass arrests of political/worker activists.

27: Mutinies begin at seven o’clock in the morning when troops from the Volynsky regiment refuse to be deployed against the protesters. They call on other barracks for support. Soldiers disappear into the crowds, taking their weapons with them. Armoured cars fly red flags. Political prisoners are released. There are now 400,000 workers on strike, and 150,000 troops have mutinied. Workers in Moscow strike and demonstrate. The Petrograd Soviet (council) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is formed – dominated by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, with the Menshevik, Nikolay Chkheidze, appointed leader.

28: The Moscow Soviet is formed during the citywide uprising. The first issue of Izvestia (News), the journal of the Petrograd Soviet, is published. The Duma (the now powerless tsarist-era parliament) and the Petrograd Soviet meet to try to work out a way forward. The tsar attempts to return to his palace on the outskirts of Petrograd, but his train is diverted by railway workers – the 300-year Romanov dynasty hits the buffers in a railway siding in Pskov. But a question hangs in the air: who holds power, the old tsarist establishment, the landlord/capitalist class, the liberals and right-wing social democrats, or the rising revolutionary masses?

March 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).

Anger and desperation at poverty, hunger and starvation, and the horrors of the first world war culminated in the February revolution – triggered when women workers took strike action in the capital, Petrograd. Workers’ and soldiers’ soviets (councils) were set up, forming city/province wide bodies in Petrograd and Moscow. Still led by the right-wing socialists, the Mensheviks, and the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries, they initially tried to reach an accommodation with the now powerless tsarist-era Duma (parliament). Real power was within reach of the masses. Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) and Leon Trotsky remained in exile, in Switzerland and the USA respectively.

March 1917

1: The Petrograd Soviet passes Order No.1 for the election of officers by rank-and-file soldiers.

3: Tsar Nicholas II abdicates. The Provisional Government is inaugurated.

5: The Bolsheviks’ paper, Pravda (Truth), is published in Russia for the first time since it was banned under the tsar in July 1914.

6: The Petrograd Soviet creates the Contact Commission to liaise with the Provisional Government. The government declares an amnesty for political prisoners.

8: The Provisional Government refuses to allow independence for Finland.

9: The US recognises the Provisional Government, followed two days later by France, Britain and Italy – on assurances that Russia continues the war.

12: Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin return to Petrograd from exile in Siberia. They take the reins of the Bolshevik Party, shifting its editorial line to the right. The death penalty is abolished.

14: Leon Trotsky, Natalya Sedova and their sons, Lev and Sergei, leave New York but, on the 17th, British authorities hold their ship in Nova Scotia. The Petrograd Soviet declares for peace in the first world war.

15: Moscow general strike begins for the eight-hour working day.

17: The Provisional Government refuses independence for Poland.

19: The Provisional Government condemns land seizures by peasants.

20: Trotsky is arrested (uncharged) and denied legal rights by the British authorities. He is held in a prison camp for captured Germany sailors. His family is placed under guard. The Provisional Government lifts the tsarist restrictions on (non-Christian Orthodox) religions and on languages.

27: The Provisional Government declares it will continue the war ‘in defence’ of Russia.

29: All-Russia Conference of Soviets is held in Petrograd.

Late March: Alexandra Kollontai arrives in Petrograd. Lenin, Zinoviev and 17 other Bolsheviks leave Switzerland for the Russian capital.

April 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 mass movement triggered by the February revolution has forced the tsar to abdicate. A Provisional Government has been appointed. Alongside this unstable and weak administration, councils (soviets) of workers and soldiers are playing an ever important role. However, the right-wing leadership of the soviets – including and above all in the capital Petrograd – cannot deliver the bread, peace and land demanded by the masses.

April 1917

3: Lenin, Zinoviev and 17 other Bolsheviks (among other activists) arrive from exile at Finland station, Petrograd, to a huge welcome. In a short speech, Lenin shocks those (including in his own party) expecting bland words of greeting with his full support for the revolutionary masses and international socialist revolution. All the way to the Bolshevik HQ, Lenin addresses the crowds.

4: Lenin explains his April Theses to Bolsheviks at the HQ, then at another meeting to Bolshevik and Menshevik members.

7: Pravda, the Bolsheviks’ paper, publishes the April Theses – Kamenev’s preface denounces Lenin’s ‘scheme’ as ‘unacceptable’. A subsequent Bolshevik Petrograd Committee rejects the theses 13 votes to 2 with 1 abstention. Lenin takes the campaign to the party’s membership.

14: At another Petrograd Bolshevik meeting, Lenin’s demand for the transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Soviet beats Kamenev’s cautious call merely for ‘the most vigilant watch’ of the government by 20:6 with 9 abstentions.

18: Massive demonstrations celebrate international workers’ day – May Day in the western Gregorian calendar. Pavel Milyukov, foreign affairs minister, telegrams Russia’s war allies stating that the Provisional Government will continue the agreement with Britain, France and the USA, and will not make a separate peace with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Turkey.

20-21: News of the telegram provokes mass, armed protests in Petrograd against the government’s war aims, Milyukov, and the Provisional Government itself. The right-wing Kadet party organises counter-demos of officers and middle class layers. Clashes and armed confrontations occur. The Petrograd Soviet executive, led by right-wing socialist Mensheviks and the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries, bans meetings and protests for 48 hours.

20: Trotsky is released from his five-week (illegal) detention by British authorities in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Canada. He and his family resume their journey to Russia.

26: The Provisional Government announces it will move to form a coalition including right-wing socialists. Russia’s war allies pile pressure on the Provisional Government to launch a new military offensive – partly to stop revolution spreading to French and British troops. The imperialist powers send social democratic leaders to put their case – such as Arthur Henderson (leading Labour Party figure in Britain’s coalition cabinet), and Emile Vandervelde (Belgian president of the Second International).

24-29: An all-Russia Bolshevik Party conference overwhelmingly approves the transfer of power to the soviets by 149:3 with 8 abstentions. The Bolsheviks now number 79,000 – 15,000 in Petrograd.

30: Minister of war, Alexander Guchkov, resigns as a result of the mass pressure.

Lenin’s April Theses

The theses were Lenin’s wake-up call to the Bolshevik party, whose leadership in Russia had failed to keep up with events following the February revolution. This was made worse in March when Stalin and Kamenev arrived in Petrograd from exile in Siberia. They shifted the Bolsheviks’ political line further to the right, calling for conditional support for the Provisional Government, and for reconciliation with the Mensheviks.

They saw the revolution as the start of a period of capitalist economic and political development, relegating the role of the working class to supporters of the ‘liberal’ government – and any idea of socialism to some dim and distant future.

This caused confusion among Bolshevik members, especially working-class activists in the middle of the mass struggle. The Provisional Government was made up of landlords, capitalists and tsarist sympathisers. It could never end the war, distribute land, provide food or meet workers’ demands. To suggest otherwise was to sow dangerous illusions.

On the other hand, the soviets – although led by right-wingers – were based on the collective strength of the organised working class, the only force capable of driving through the radical change needed. Unless the soviets took power, counter-revolution and military rule would triumph.

In the April Theses, Lenin called on the Bolsheviks to campaign to win over the soviets to a socialist programme based on the independent action of the working class. He set 1917 Russia against the background of further revolutionary movements internationally.

Lenin demanded: no support for the Provisional Government; all power to the soviets; end the war; confiscate the big landed estates; nationalise the banks; establish workers’ control of industry; replace the police/army with a workers’ militia; replace the old state bureaucracy with a workers’ administration; proclaim a Communist Party; establish a new international.

This programme set him at odds with Stalin, Kamenev and the majority on the Bolshevik Central Committee still clinging to old, routinist positions which, in those revolutionary times, had long passed their use-by date.

In the April Theses, Lenin’s thinking coincided with the theory of ‘permanent revolution’, Leon Trotsky’s 1906 analysis of the first Russian revolution. This remained Trotsky’s perspective in 1917.

Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Mezhraiontsy

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was formed in 1898 to bring together the numerous Marxist and revolutionary groups in the Russian empire.

On 17 November 1903, at a conference in London, it split into two main camps: the Bolsheviks (meaning ‘majority’) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (‘minority’) headed by Julius Martov.

Various trends continued to exist in the RSDLP. Trotsky, for instance, although politically aligned with the Bolsheviks, attempted to unify the factions for several years, remaining independent of both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

In 1912, the RSDLP-Bolsheviks became a separate party.

At a crucial stage in 1917, Trotsky and his organisation, the Mezhraiontsy, merged with the Bolsheviks in full political and organisational agreement. Mezhraiontsy translates as ‘inter-district committee’ – its political meaning was that it stood between the different socialist camps.

Throughout this time, socialists and Marxists often called themselves ‘social democrats’. The term was linked to the revolutionary movement and ideology founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-1800s. Today, it is usually used by mainstream media to refer to ‘moderate’, ‘centre-left’ (pro-establishment) parties.

In 1918, the Bolshevik party changed its name to the (All) Russian Communist Party. This was one of the demands in the April Theses. Lenin’s aim was to state clearly the need for communist (or socialist) change – and to distance the party from the other ‘social democratic’ groups which were selling out the workers, soldiers and peasants.

Lenin linked this to the call for a new international: for a break from the Second International of mass social democratic parties which had backed the imperialist powers during the first world war. They had been complicit in the slaughter of millions of people, betraying the basic Marxist principles of workers’ solidarity and socialist internationalism.

Russian revolution timeline – May 1917

The fourth in our series on the 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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