October 17 Pt 2: Storming the Winter Palace 14

Eisenstein’s October (1928) Arts Desk Poster for Barbican Showing


Read Part 1 October 17

In May 1917 when Trotsky arrived in Petersburg from New York, after spending a month interned by the British, he did not immediately join Lenin’s Bolsheviks. As a Marxist, Trotsky was suspicious of Lenin, who he rightly viewed as an ambitious radical intent on exploiting a popular mass movement to seize power.

When he repeated similar accusations against Stalin during World War II, ‘The Red Tsar’ accused him of being a fascist sympathiser. Not to be outdone, Trotsky retorted he only agreed with the Nazis on this particular point because it happened to be true.

Trotsky never trusted Lenin and Stalin. The feeling was reciprocated. The only reason they worked together was overweening personal ambition. And ambition divided them.

Trotsky was brilliant and an inspiring popular orator. His fellow Bolsheviks thought him arrogant as he ostentatiously read novels (in French) during committee meetings. Yet at the crucial time it was Trotsky’s organisational genius and oratory skills that won them the putsch. For that is what it was: the overthrow of a legitimate government by a radical minority. Although that point of view could not be openly expressed in Russia for another century.

The July demonstration failed in Petersburg after Lenin talked down the workers and the Prime Minister Kerensky had snipers open fire on them. When the leading Bolsheviks, including Trotsky, were arrested Lenin fled to Finland, leaving Stalin in control.

By this time the people were sick of famine and war. Some even suggested things would be better under the Germans. Kerensky remained popular. Yet as he tried to juggle the conflicting demands of competing factions, a series of poor decisions started to weigh against him. Although he genuinely wanted to roll out democracy, he had no idea how. Russia had been a pressure cooker for too long. Lifting the lid, even a little, would bring disaster.

In a desperate attempt to restore order he ordered General Kornilov to Petersburg. When Kornilov tried to seize power, Kerensky turned to the Bolsheviks, freeing Trotsky and arming his Red Guard. Bolshevik infiltrators persuaded Kornilov’s army to desert rather than fight fellow workers. The coup was averted. Kornilov was arrested. The Bolsheviks emerged as the city’s saviours.

With Lenin in exile Trotsky became interim leader. Sensing opportunity was slipping through his fingers Lenin tried to force an uprising: raging through Stalin they needed to seize power. The Bolshevik Politburo was terrified of Lenin and Stalin’s zealotry.

In early October, Lenin, still a wanted man, returned in disguise to confront the Politburo over their hesitation. Trotsky advised waiting until the Soviet Congress on 25 October. He believed Soviet approval would make the uprising look legal. But Lenin and Stalin bullied the committee into staging the coup on the eve of the Congress.

Two days before the Congress, Kerensky, expecting trouble, closed down two radical Bolshevik newspapers. Trotsky accused him of censorship and demanded workers seize the city to save themselves from government oppression. This was a lie, but it riled up the workers.

On the morning of 25 October Lenin crept into Bolshevik HQ to find Trotsky organising the ‘liberation’ of the city. He was both gratified and deeply resentful. Lenin was not happy to discover the Winter Palace, the Provisional Government’s seat, was not taken as there was still a legitimate government in power.

With great audacity Trotsky announced to the Soviet Congress the Winter Palace was due to fall within minutes. It was another lie. Many delegates were so incensed they walked out leaving a Bolshevik majority and handing them power.

As they left, Trotsky mocked the delegates, consigning them to the dustbin of history. He claimed it was not a putsch but an uprising of the masses of the people, which required no justification. The people and the Bolsheviks had worked together and the people would not renounce their victory. Through such rhetoric he made a minority coup sound like genuine revolution.

Storming the Winter Palace: from a 1920 Bolshevik mass celebration to commemorate October 1917. They distributed this photo world-wide as a genuine record of the actual event! (Public Domain)

Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film October (1928) portrayed the 26 October 1917 storming of the Winter Palace as violent struggle by the people. Soviet films were Bolshevik propaganda to prove the revolution was as genuine as the French and American. In truth there were not thousands. The Winter Palace was not even locked, and lightly guarded by troops of terrified cadets and women soldiers. Not a shot was fired. A dozen Bolshevik Red Guards walked into the committee room and told the elected government ministers they were under arrest.

The Bolsheviks had won.

Lenin immediately issued hundreds of decrees to liberalise Russia, many of which did not survive the first wave of euphoria. A month after the Bolsheviks seized power a 5 year long Civil War swept through Russia. This resulted in the Bolsheviks executing the Tsar and his family rather than have them liberated by the White Russians: a coalition of monarchists, capitalists and anti-Bolshevik Socialists.

Russia became a right-wing, one-party, totalitarian state under Lenin. The horror stories are plenty. Lenin proposed all who opposed his regime should be shot and created the Cheka Secret Police, which later became the KGB.

Under the Tsar there averaged 17 political executions per year. Under Lenin there was a 1,000 a month. It is estimated Lenin was responsible for the murder of 10 million Russians. It is safe to say he was not a people person, viewing people as no more than instruments to be moulded to his will.

Peasants were stripped of all property, including grain and livestock. Those who protested were shot. Five million people died in the resultant famine, which Lenin claimed was good for the country as it completed the revolution by destroying the peasants’ belief in the Tsar and God, and made it easier to dismantle the Russian Orthodox Church.

According to Marx, the Communism was about workers taking control of production. Communism was designed for advanced industrial countries like Germany and England. Being mainly agricultural, Russia did not produce enough wealth to support her people.

As a Marxist, Lenin knew the Russian revolution was doomed without a Communist world uprising. He hoped Germany would follow; which it almost did, leading to the rise of the Nazis. International Communism embraced Russia as a leading light. Russia used International Communism to further World Revolution.

Shortly before Lenin’s death in 1924, Russia was in such an economic mess he proposed reintroducing capitalism to get the country back in its feet. He also said Stalin was not the right man to succeed him. Maybe he guessed what Stalin would do.

Under Stalin, Communist Russia continued as an absolutist police state. Stalin doubled Lenin’s head count; murdering at least 20 million people in his quarter of a century reign of terror.

Like Nazi Germany he used forced labour for construction projects with workers on starvation rations. He engineered genocides and ethnic cleansing. Blockading the Ukraine to stop people leaving, he removed all food and let the population starve. While Russia was in the grip of famine, Stalin sold grain to the West.

He purged political dissidents including many original party members and instigated show trials where the tortured and broken confessed their errors, real and imagined. Stalin would often work late into the night signing death warrants. One particularly productive night he signed 3,000.

Trotsky avoided the purges by fleeing to Mexico. In 1940 Stalin sent an assassin. The 60 year old Trotsky was attacked in his study with an ice pick. Trotsky’s bodyguards captured the assassin, but he was not executed as Trotsky wanted to question him. Trotsky was taken to hospital to have his head wound treated and later died of blood loss and shock.

Stalin died miserably too, but obviously not miserably enough. After a night of heavy drinking he suffered a stroke and lingered for three days. There was a shortage of senior doctors after Stalin had them arrested as ‘murderers in white gowns’ for ‘killing babies and poisoning Party Officials’. However it is possible his own subordinates denied him medical treatment because they wished him dead.

After his death in 1953 the Central Committee imposed a system of collective leadership and took steps to prevent any single individual dominating them ever again.

Poster for Eisenstein’s film October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928) by V. Stenberg, G. Stenberg, Y. Ruklevsky

14 thoughts on “October 17 Pt 2: Storming the Winter Palace

  1. Reply Robbie Cheadle Nov 11,2017 3:51 am

    The deaths inflicted on their own people by Lenin and Stalin seem to fly a bit under the radar, Paul. Well done on bringing this out and into the light. Dictatorships are a frightening thing and you would think the world would have learned enough by now to prevent them but recent events belie that thought.

    • Reply Paul Nov 11,2017 7:33 pm

      You know what Robbie you are absolutely right and in part this is still due to the glorification of the communist and socialist ideal. Where as in truth Both Communism and Fascism were forms of socialism (Nazis were National socialists). It is the same with Mao Zedong. In the early 70 is was very radical to wave the little red book of the thoughts of Chairman Mao around: another mass murderer!
      You look at every communist regime and it has this catalogue of murder and oppression… yet all we get from the radical socialists is how wonderful the world will be under communism and how different it will be this time round! God knows capitalism has a hell of a lot to answer for… it gave rise to both communism and fascism… but at least what we have today is probably the least of all the evils we could have. Which has got to be be worth something! Px

  2. Reply Shehanne Moore Nov 10,2017 1:19 pm

    Shocking what the Russian people suffered at the hands of men who believed their own myth. A great post Paul xxxxx

  3. Reply Teagan Geneviene Nov 8,2017 6:05 pm

    Paul this was fascinating. Everyone knows that history is written and told by the victor (and their descendants), but it’s very disturbing when we admit it is still happening.
    Have a great rest of the week. Hugs!

    • Reply Paul Nov 8,2017 11:31 pm

      Dear Teagan. Your comment came through. It is disturbing and it is definitely still happening and I suppose always will. Px

  4. Reply sally cronin Nov 8,2017 5:00 pm

    I waited to read this with some chores behind me and time to read in detail. It is a stunning piece Paul that vividly portrays the events, manipulators and evil that resulted in the deaths of so many millions. Well done and of course will reblog on Saturday afternoon. Sally x

    • Reply Paul Nov 8,2017 11:36 pm

      Dearest Sally, It always means a heck of a lot to me that you like my work. Don’t know why but it does! For me this was a subject it was very easy to get passionate about, partly because it is still happening today. There are things in motion today we are prevented from seeing but in another century people will look back and shake their heads in disbelief thinking how could not have known….If we are still here that is! And please God we are! Pxx

  5. Reply Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, MCC, SCAC Nov 7,2017 9:20 am

    This post gave me goosebumps and might give me nightmares, but still I’m glad I read it.

    Dolly (KookKosherKitchen)came of age in Russia around this time – and, even though she avoids politics on her blog, hints at some of the remnants of these horrors in some of her comments, now that she is safely here in America and in no danger of being sent to Siberia.

    Since my own education focused on The Cold War between Russia and America, I missed many of the details in your history of these monsters. I was unaware of how incredibly many Russian citizens were slaughtered or starved to death during this period of their history (as grain was being bought by the West).

    You are absolutely right in the comment above – if you wrote a fiction piece with characters of such unrelenting badness, you would be totally discounted as an author. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction!

    • Reply Paul Nov 7,2017 7:49 pm

      Dear Madelyn, thank you for your comments. I really hope I have not upset Dolly by reminding her of how things were. The 20th Century is so full of absolute immoral atrocities, yet we have the nerve to look at the past, like Roman times or Medieval times or Victorian times and think we are so superior. In 1984 Orwell talks of Double-think as an outcome of totalitarian states where you can hold 2 contrary opinions and believe both. I actually think it is something we do all the time. I think it is endemic in our species. Because it is not just the leaders who commit these atrocities it is the millions of citizens (me included ) who are not prepared to put their head above the parapet in case it is shot off. And these leaders know if one person is foolish enough to stick their head above the parapet, they make damn sure to shoot it off so that everyone knows the same is waiting for them. Fear the great motivator!

  6. Reply BRIGID GALLAGHER Nov 7,2017 7:09 am

    Thank you Paul. It is so sad to read of so many innocent people being slaughtered at the hands of these power hungry politicians. It seems that power comes before truth and humanity. Sadly this lesson has not been learned and history keeps repeating itself…

    • Reply Paul Nov 7,2017 7:42 pm

      Thank you Brigid for your comment. I think what shocked me most was the fact that 3 men could steal the biggest country in the world. Lenin and Trotsky would have been shocked to be thought of as bad men. (I think Stalin was just an opportunist.) In their eyes they were not bad just right. If the world only did what they said it would be a better place. It is a mistake to demonise them because it absolves us from our complacency (And to be honest I hold my hands up I am the world’s worst!) You are right when you say jistory keeps repeating itself. These people are still all around us telling us what to do: politicians, business men, social movers and shakers. they have no more idea than we have but try to convince us their way is best. I also think power is like any drug.. the more you get the more you want until. At some point you begin to justify: I do deserve a bigger palace; people deserve what they get; you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs! Even though it doesn’t work that great I think this is why we need democracy… to hold them in check!

  7. Reply D. Wallace Peach Nov 6,2017 9:34 pm

    Wow, Paul, those guys were monsters. How heartbreaking and horrible for millions upon millions of people.

    • Reply Paul Nov 6,2017 11:44 pm

      Diana I know absolute monsters. It is quite funny because as a speculative fiction writer (me with Finn mac Cool). You would feel uncomfortable making up someone so one-dimensionally monstrous because you would fear he might come over a caricature which would reflect on you as an author… but they do exist… in their scores like Pol Pot and Kim Jong Un.

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