One Hundred Years Ago: the Russian Revolution and the July Crisis, 1917

One Hundred Years Ago: the Russian Revolution and the July Crisis, 1917

The Russian Revolution of 1917 did not occur all at once, but over a period of eight months and four political crises. The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the collapse of the tsarist government were provoked by a spontaneous eruption of popular anger in the capital city of Petrograd. The collapse was both anticipated and not. French and British diplomats had warned that the tsarist government was on its last legs, but revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, in exile in Switzerland, were caught off guard, and hurried to return home.

Revolutionaries of all stripes, including Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), rushed to organise Soviets (literally «councils»), tumultuous democratic assemblies of soldiers, workers and peasants, but they were reluctant to take all governmental power into their own hands. These socialists could endlessly debate this or that point of revolutionary theory, but actual governing was another matter where revolutionary principles were often not much help. So the Petrograd Soviet, at first dominated by confused Mensheviks and SRs, allowed the creation of a so-called Provisional Government composed of members of the former tsarist elite and its «liberal» political parties. These men were anything but revolutionaries, and had nothing in common with the soldiers and workers who had compelled the abdication of the tsar. In fact, the Provisional Government desired not to consolidate or deepen the revolution, but to bring it to a halt. Where peasant-soldiers demanded an end to the war and redistribution of agricultural lands, the Provisional Government proposed a continuation of the war and a reaffirmation of tsarist war aims. As for land redistribution, it could wait until sometime in the future. Peasants, who were anything but stupid, knew what that meant. They had been waiting for more than fifty years for some elemental justice from the tsarist aristocracy. For them, waiting was a fool’s game which they were no longer willing to play.

Peasants had been waiting for more than fifty years for some elemental justice from the tsarist aristocracy

So you can see that a conflict was bound to occur between the Soviets, which spread across the country, and a Provisional Government, which represented the former tsarist rural and urban elites. The former wanted to secure the gains of the revolution; the latter, to stop the revolution in its tracks. The Provisional Government was the cork in the bottle trying to plug the revolutionary movement. It was only a matter of time before revolutionary pressures blew the cork out of the bottle.

The left wing of the socialist movement, the Bolsheviks, quickly gained their bearings with the help of their leader Vladimir Lenin, who returned from exile in April. Their objective was to win the support of the revolutionary masses, especially soldiers and workers, which they did during the spring and summer of 1917.

Aleksandr F. Kerensky, who became war minister, hoped to re-establish military discipline, send soldiers back to the front and keep Russia in the war

first governmental crisis occurred in May when the foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, resigned after having tried to maintain tsarist war aims and to keep Russia in the war. Five Mensheviks and SRs then entered the Provisional Government to give it legitimacy vis-à-vis the revolutionary masses who were growing impatient with a government that did not represent their interests, six socialist ministers or not (including Aleksandr F. Kerensky). The cork was still in the bottle and the stall was still on. Representatives of the former tsarist elite continued to control the Provisional Government and the would-be dictator and faux socialist, Kerensky, became war minister. He hoped to re-establish military discipline, send soldiers back to the front and keep Russia in the war. Basically, this was a formula for halting the revolution. The western Allies, especially France and Britain, supported these intentions, and their diplomatic and military agents kept in close touch with the Russian high command.

Kerensky went to the front to drum up support for a summer offensive, with French and British blessings, but not much optimism. Soldiers were mostly peasants and they made it plain even to their senior officers that they did not care a pin about the Provisional Government or any doubtful promises about land reform in the future. The land is being redistributed now, they said, and we don’t want to be killed before getting our share. Already a tacit truce existed in numerous places along the front. Infantry soldiers threatened to bayonet any artillerymen who fired on the enemy. Officers were lynched with or without any pretext. In one case, two companies of soldiers returning to the front asked to speak to their commanding officer. He came out to meet them, but before finishing the traditional greeting to his men was shot in the head. The soldiers then marched off to the front as though nothing had happened. An investigation led nowhere, and the day of the general’s funeral, the battalion chosen to present arms, refused to march. Such incidents were commonplace during that summer of 1917. Even Russian officers admitted that there was an abyss between themselves and their men. Many still came from the rural landed elite who often treated their soldiers as abusively as they did peasants on their estates.

French officers attached to the Russian high command considered a separate peace to be inevitable. In the countryside, peasants were taking matters into their own hands. «Anarchy», according to one French officer, was spreading «like an epidemic». No sooner had it burned out in one area, then it erupted in another.

The «Russian people», avowed one French diplomat, «have an extraordinary capacity for anarchy».

A French officer opined that «the Russians have less good sense and less patriotism than us».

«Rather more», any Bolshevik would have replied sarcastically, laughing at such «bourgeois», ethnocentric ideas.

Lenin, who almost no one had heard of before he returned to Russia, became the Entente’s bête noire. He was the evil genius behind the burgeoning «anarchy». His programme was simple and effective: an end to the war and the immediate redistribution of land to the peasantry. The war, Lenin told his followers, serves only the interests of capitalist elites, and you are their cannon fodder!

One French officer noted that Lenin spoke nightly to ever increasing crowds at the former residence of the ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaya, which became Bolshevik headquarters. «One would have thought», the officer remarked, «that having returned to Russia across Germany, he [Lenin] would have been immediately discredited». But no, «on the contrary», he is gaining a wider hearing. He does not have everyone with him yet, said this officer, as though trying to come up with something positive for his report to Paris.

Lenin spoke nightly to ever increasing crowds at the former residence of the ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaya, which became Bolshevik headquarters

If you were an officer in the French military mission in Russia in 1917, the situation offered little grounds for optimism. Soldiers and workers in Petrograd were becoming more and more militant. The Bolsheviks were not quite sure what to do. Lenin was cautious, uncertain if the time had come to move against the Provisional Government. He tried to hold back the militants in Petrograd until the provinces and front-line army units had caught up with them. «Be patient», he said, «time is on our side». It almost seemed as if the Bolsheviks were running after the revolutionary masses in order to take direction of their movement. Caution was a good idea in the volatile situation in Petrograd, but if you did not keep up, your followers might leave you behind. The Bolsheviks discouraged one potentially dangerous street demonstration in June, but equivocated with regard to another in mid-July which led to some street fighting in the capital.

The Bolsheviks discouraged one potentially dangerous street demonstration in June, but equivocated with regard to another in mid-July which led to some street fighting in the capital

Mensheviks and SRs tried to calm down angry soldiers, blaming everything on the Bolsheviks, accused of being «anarchists» and «German agents». Be reasonable was the general line, and trust the Provisional Government which in fact was falling apart. «Take power, you son-of-a-bitch», responded one angry worker, «when it’s given to you». To militant workers and soldiers it was increasingly obvious that only the Bolsheviks had the will to do so.

The Provisional Government momentarily gained the upper hand: it raided Bolshevik headquarters at the Kshesinskaya mansion, shut down the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda and incarcerated a number of Bolshevik leaders. Even casual dissent could lead to arrest. Kerensky and his associates claimed to be «saving the revolution», but in fact the opposite was true. How could it be otherwise, since Kerensky had allied himself with the «liberal» parties of the former tsarist elite?

On 1 July, just before the disorders in Petrograd, the offensive was launched on the southwestern front facing the Austrian army

In the meantime Kerensky had finally got the offensive he wanted. Success would give the Provisional Government credibility and allow it to put down indiscipline in the army and especially in the Petrograd garrison. That was the plan, ill-conceived, as it turned out. On 1 July, just before the disorders in Petrograd, the offensive was launched on the southwestern front facing the Austrian army. After some initial successes, Austrian resistance stiffened and the German army intervened to throw back Russian forces. The offensive became a fiasco, and the Russian retreat did not stop until German forces were exhausted and could advance no more, some 250 kilometres behind the original Russian lines. A French report indicated that the Germans had let one Russian regiment withdraw, rifles hitched over shoulders, while German units followed a few hundred metres behind. The Russian army was played out, and Kerensky’s days, numbered, according to French officers, «because his ideas went against those of the masses». According to General Maurice Janin, head of the French Military Mission, «if the enemy here decides to undertake serious operations, it will mean the collapse [of Russian resistance]».

In the aftermath of the failed offensive, the credibility of most Mensheviks and SRs also suffered, because of their coalition politics with the former tsarist elite. They, too, were going against the popular will, and were more and more perceived as has-beens and dupes. The Provisional Government—that rotten, dried out cork in the bottle—could no longer hold back the growing forces of popular revolution.

Tsarist officers were reported to be at the end of their patience. Why fight for a government, they said, that «wants to take our lands»

There remained those who would try. The tsarist officer corps, still intact and very angry, began to talk openly of a coup d’état against the Soviets. French officers reported the first rumours in early June well before the July offensive. «Moscow is at the head of the movement… money is not lacking», one report advised: «They say that a lot of French and British money has been given for the counter-revolution. The big banks have also committed themselves to a large degree». The planned offensive is «the last card to play». If it doesn’t work, another report indicated, «the only solution» would be «a military coup d’état» in order «to re-establish discipline» in the army. To this end Russian officers were willing to work with the Provisional Government, but if necessary, in spite of it.

«Personally», reported one French officer, «I do not see the salvation of the army and the country except in a vast Cossack movement which will sweep away all the bad elements… and re-establish order by force if necessary…».

«They often say», remarked another French officer, «that ‘the Cossacks have always saved Russia.’ They like coups, and they like discipline and order. It’s time to turn them loose at a full gallop».

Tsarist officers were reported to be at the end of their patience. Why fight for a government, they said, that «wants to take our lands». Indeed, some officers, said one French report, were waiting for the German army «to restore order in the country».

The French government had to put down its own mutinies after a senseless spring offensive against German trenches. «Grave and painful incidents» had occurred, according to the government in Paris, which had required the rapid application of the death penalty, imprisonment and the purging of affected military units. Repression was also directed against subversive civilian elements seeking «to encourage indiscipline in the army». The government in Paris took heart when Italian authorities used armoured cars and cavalry to crush a mutiny in the Italian army. Thirty-one mutineers were shot. Armoured cars were lined up behind the firing squads «to force obedience if necessary». If only the Russian high command could have taken similar measures; it certainly thought of doing so. Russian soldiers and sailors, however, were far beyond the control of the officer corps, and any attempted repression would have provoked armed resistance.

The Bolsheviks suffered only a temporary setback in July. The failed Kerensky offensive undermined any advantage, which the Provisional Government had gained as a result of the abortive street demonstrations in Petrograd. Russian officers were overheard openly discussing a «counter-revolutionary» coup d’état to put down the Bolsheviks and the soldiers and sailors who supported them. A showdown was imminent, but who knew how it would turn out?

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