The First Stages of the Russian Revolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

After Lenin returned to Russia from Finland, he continued to work towards revolution. Although he had to be in disguise for his own security, he continued to stir the Bolsheviks through his motivating speeches to carry on the uprising. Now, with a weakened provisional government as a result of several risings, the scene was ready for the Bolsheviks to strike.

Vladimir Lenin, at his desk between 1920 to 1922.
Vladimir Lenin took power in 1917. (Image: Alex3dteam/Shutterstock)

Leon Trotsky at the Center of the Revolution

One of the central forces of this revolution was Leon Trotsky who had just returned from exile in New York. Originally a Menshevik, who were the Bolsheviks’ rivals, he was accepted by Lenin to become a Bolshevik. He had become the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet and the Military Revolutionary Committee and was appointed to coordinate the coup.  

Although it was widely known that the Bolsheviks were preparing for revolution, nobody seemed to worry about it. People thought they were limited in numbers and were not capable of such a grand undertaking.

They had planned to carry out the coup on October 25, 1917 (by the old Russian calendar). The night before the coup, the unsuspecting Russians were going about their normal lives. The Bolshevik Red Guards easily and quietly took over several places like the train stations, telephone exchange, and the main bank.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Easy Capture of the Capital

At 9.40 p.m., October 25, the Winter Palace was attacked, and quickly occupied, by the Bolsheviks. The dispirited defenders of the Winter Palace, mainly Women’s Death Battalion and the cadets, were easily disarmed, arrested, and defeated without much resistance. The palace was so easily occupied that only six people were killed. According to David Mackenzie and Michael Curran, the historians, this capture was “prosaic, anticlimactic, and virtually bloodless”. It actually didn’t change the normal lives of the people in the capital that were unaware of the fact that the government had been abdicated.

The WinterPalace with Bolsheviks.
The Winter Palace was easily captured by Bolsheviks. (Image: Unknown Author/Public domain)

The government officials were either arrested or, like Alexander Kerensky, fled the country. The Bolsheviks went on to capture the Kremlin and then assumed authority although many did not believe them to be powerful enough to be of any influence. Even Lenin himself doubted that they could hold on to power. He was thrilled to outlast the Paris Commune, and when they finally did, he danced in the snow out of extreme delight.

Minister-Chairman of the Russian provisional government Alexander Kerensky.
Alexander Kerensky, the Prime Minister of the provisional government fled Russia after the Revolution. (Image: Karl Bulla/Public domain)

Lenin Finally Takes Control

Soon, they established the Council of People’s Commissars with Lenin as its president. The true power belonged to the Council of People’s Commissars, although the Bolsheviks claimed that all decisions were made in the name of the Soviets. The Council of People’s Commissars, or Sovnarkom, had Trotsky as its commissar for foreign affairs, and Joseph Stalin, an obscure Georgian revolutionary, as its commissar for nationalities. He was in charge of policies regarding ethnic groups and national minorities.

Learn more about the making of Lenin.

In November the elections that had been scheduled at the time of the provisional government were held, and the Bolsheviks only polled 24 percent of the votes. So they decided that the elected body should be disbanded and satisfied Lenin’s tendency towards dictatorship.

The Idealization of the Revolution

Several years after the Bolshevik revolution, extensive efforts were made to idolize the movement. These efforts tried to depict it as an inexorable fact, not something that had to fight the odds.

The first of these series of attempts took place by an American journalist, John Reed. He had come from America to cover the current events during the revolution when he became fascinated by the movement. In his book, Ten Days That Shook the World, he described what he had eye-witnessed with great admiration for the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks, in turn, flaunted their global influence through this book and turned Reed into a Soviet hero.

Another effort was made by the Soviet film director, Sergei Eisenstein, for the tenth anniversary of the revolution. He was employed by the Soviet government to direct a film portraying those events, especially the capture of the Winter Palace. The name of the film was October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Since there were no records of the real event, the scenes from this film have been used as the visual documentation of the revolution by many historians.

Learn more about the red bridge to world revolution.

Efforts to idealize the revolution were not limited to the book and film industry. The world of music also had its contribution. Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer and pianist, dedicated his Symphony 2 to Lenin. In addition, he composed his Symphony No. 12: The Year of 1917 as a tribute to the revolution.  

Common Questions About How Did the Russian Revolution Take Place?

Q: What did Alexander Kerensky do?

Alexander Kerensky was a revolutionary who had a key place in overthrowing the Russian czar. He then became the Prime Minister of the provisional government.

Q: What does Sovnarkom mean?

Sovnarkom was the acronym of the Council of People’s Commissars, which was established in 1917. The head of the council was Vladimir Lenin, and it performed all the governmental functions.

Q: What happened at the Winter Palace?

During the Russian Revolution, the Winter Palace was one of the main places occupied by the Bolshevik soldiers. The defense at the palace was fragile, and it was occupied very quickly and easily.

Q: What is Sergei Eisenstein known for?

Sergei Eisenstein was a famous Russian filmmaker who was commissioned by the Soviet government to make a film about the Russian Revolution. The scenes of his film have been used as the visual references of the revolution.

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