Russia : 7 November 1917, a revolution or a coup ?

Allegory of the October revolution of 1917 : a Russian town under snow, whose streets are crowded by protesters of the proletariat, guided by a man-giant wielding a huge red banner that runs and floats above the city. Painting of Boris Michaylovich Koustodiev (1878-1927), oil on canvas, 1919-1920. Russian Art, early Twentieth century, soviet propaganda.
© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow/ArtImages/Leemage


On November 7, 1917, in Petrograd (St. Petersburg today), was a founder event in Russian history : the October revolution. Revolution ? Coup ? Or even ” day of reconciliation “, as this the Russian government ? The historians of all nationalities have long debated on the nature of these events. Of the debates which have shaken the historiography of the Russian and more generally european, we are questioning also on rewrites history and myths surrounding the October revolution.

This last takes root in the February revolution, which overthrew the tsarist regime in Russian. The events of October have long been celebrated by parades, tributes, and celebrations in Russia, and in particular within the movements communists. Long regarded as a seminal moment in Russian history (and often compared to the French Revolution), the October revolution would not be-it just a myth ? Its history has it been rewritten ?

The revolution of February 1917 : the end of the empire

To understand the events of the 25th October 1917 – 7th November according to the gregorian calendar (Russia was then using the julian calendar), it is necessary to consider the first revolt, that of February 1917.

Portrait of the Russian tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) in 1910. © Photo-Re-Public/leemage

A severe food crisis, the weakness of the Russian economy – weakened by the war effort – and the unpopularity growing of tsar Nicholas II cause, from the 23rd of February, a general strike. The repression ordered by the tsar transformed the strike into a real insurrection. On the 26th of February, 150 people are killed by the army. In the night from 26 to 27 February, the mutiny of two regiments of elite, traumatized of having shot their “brothers workers” (formula consecrated during the protests), flip the situation : the next day, the workers and the soldiers combine and occupy the strategic points of the capital city of Petrograd. On 2 march 1917, tsar Nicholas II abdicated. In a few days, the insurgency of the spontaneous workers ‘ movements overthrew the tsarist regime yet old of three centuries.

Between February and October 1917, the people’s anger rises

The political power is based on two entities : on the one hand, a provisional government represented by a few deputies of the state Duma (the lower chamber of Parliament of Russia), in favour of the “restoration of order government and public” ; the other, a soviet, a council created by revolutionary militants anxious to channel the movement, composed of workers, peasants and soldiers in favour of the revolution. Under his leadership, a series of reforms will be enacted, some of which are especially in advance compared to other European countries. Among them : universal suffrage, the abolition of all forms of discrimination, the right to vote given to women, etc

But this did not calm the people, which continues to claim between February and October 1917 ” bread, peace, land “. The fragility of the Russian economy has indeed caused a severe food crisis, particularly in the cities. For their part, peasants (who represent 135 million on $ 168 million in Russia) claim to land, in particular those of the large owners. Finally, Russia’s involvement in the First world War is very unpopular : the output of war is a major demand. In August 1914, 18 million men are enlisted in the army, and Russia deplores, in 1917, already more than 1.8 million deaths.

The two organs of power struggle, then, to channel the demands of the working environment and the farmer. The jacqueries multiply in Russian campaigns and the attempted coup initiated by general Kornilov does that further weaken the power. The bolshevik party, Lenin in the lead, with the request to give ” all power to the soviets ! “as the chant his slogans. Its leaders enjoyed, in the fall of 1917, an institutional vacuum to foment a coup.

The coup of October 1917 : the capture of power by the bolsheviks

On October 10, 1917, the central committee of the bolshevik party vote the insurgency. A committee revolutionary military is created within the soviet of Petrograd, led by Trotsky. The preparation of what some historians like Nicolas Werth, the research director at the Institute of the present time (CNRS), appoint a coup aims of the strategic points of the city of Petrograd. In the night from 24 to 25 October 1917 (according to the julian calendar), ” the detachments of the Committee revolutionary military control of the strategic points of the capital “. The morning of the 25th, Lenin proclaimed : “The government authority has passed into the hands of the organ of the soviet of workers’ deputies and soldiers of the Petrograd Committee, the military revolutionary. “

Lenin is the true guide of the insurrection of October. Well decided to overthrow the provisional government, he argues that ” it would be naive to wait for a formal majority for the bolsheviks “. “No revolution waits for that. (…). History will forgive us if we don’t take the power. “In just a few hours, Lenin and his men take the head of the country. But it is far from the idea of a revolution is spontaneous, or even surprise. In fact, according to the historian Nicolas Werth, ” the secret is not even required “. At the end of the meeting held by the central committee of the bolshevik party, the conduct of the insurgency – and in particular the strategic positions to be taken in the capital city, is published in the press.

Subsequently, the first two decrees set up by the supreme soviet will not be a great success, nor even a novelty. The first, the ” decree on peace “, ended with the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 march 1918), which dismembers the Russian empire the territories richest in production of wheat and steel (present-day Poland, Finland, Ukraine, etc). The second, the ” decree on land “, which confirms the abolition of private property and puts at the disposal of the peasant committees, local the land, merely reflects an already existing reality.

The inevitable revolution of October

Long celebrated as the time of the overthrow of the powers and of the uprising of the popular classes led by Lenin, the October revolution is now regarded by some historians as the culmination inevitable, a revolutionary process is long, rich in twists and turns, transformations, and, especially, marked by extreme fragility of the power. “Since the establishment of the soviet regime, there was only one version of the story that had the right to the city “, writes the historian Marc Ferro (1), director of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Ehess). “The new authorities stopped moving the image of the revolution and its consequences from a series of reconstructions of the event “, the judge also Alain Blum, director of studies at the Ehess, on The Conversation.

But things are changing. And this year, the centenary of the October revolution will be very quietly celebrated by Putin’s Russia.

(1) Marc Ferro. October revolution : what should we commemorate ?,
The Debate, vol. 196, no. 4, 2017, pages 133-139, Gallimard.

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