Above: The Storming of the Winter Palace. Photograph from the mass spectacle staged in 1920. http://faberfantin.com/iconography/early/winterpalace.htm
The tyranny of the Tsar had ended in February of 1917 with his forced abdication, Lenin triumphantly returned from his exile in April, and the hearts of the Russian people beat once again with hope for a peaceful, joyful future. But the global war that was taking the lives many Russian sons in a pointless struggle started by the capitalist oppressors in the West and entered into by the hated Nicholas II still raged. The Provisional Government, headed by Alexander Kerensky, proved to be just as ineffectual — except in its oppressiveness — as the Tsar had been. Months had gone by, and it was now late October (early November in the West). The proletariat had finally been pushed to their breaking point. It was time for them, led by their Soviet Council, to take power. In Petrograd on the night of October 25 (November 7 in the West), they, accompanied by the elite Red Guards of the Bolsheviks, stormed the current seat of the Provisional Government and traditional residence of the Tsars (though Nicholas II rarely had stayed there) known as the Winter Palace with the signal to attack the Winter Palace being provided by a shot from the battlecruiser Aurora, anchored in the harbor. The noble workers of Petrograd soon overthrew the bourgeoisie administration and arrested the usurpers of the power that rightly belonged to the people. The Revolution against authoritarianism and class exploitation was accomplished. All power now rested with the Soviets. History was now visibly moving in the right direction toward equality, dignity, and the improvement and perfection of not only Russia but of all humanity.
Or so one version of the story goes.
Another iteration of this tale says that after Nicholas II gave up his throne in February, Russia had seen the light of democracy from the West and was finally on a path that would allow them to take their place with all the civilized countries of the world. There were difficulties and setbacks to be sure, but the Provisional Government was the best hope Russia had to attain a system of government that could stand alongside the nations of Europe and the United States. That dream was murdered at the hands of the Bolsheviks who, led by the power-mad Lenin and the future icepick receptacle Trotsky, seduced the most destitute and poorly educated of the Russian people to give in to their anger, tear down all that remained of Russia’s honorable past, and thus destroy any chance of a free Russian future. The storming of the Winter Palace was then not a glorious beginning for a better Russia but a shameful and illegitimate coup, orchestrated by evil men, which would culminate in seventy years of oppression, misery, and death for millions of people all over the world.
With the one-hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution occurring this week, it seems helpful to hear the story of what occurred so many years ago in so far away from a place in a less dramatic but hopeful more truthful way.
As with just about everything, the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917 is complicated, but perhaps its most intriguing aspect is how anti-climactically it played out, especially in light of later representations of it. To begin, increased pressure on the Bolsheviks by Kerensky in the days leading up to the October Revolution caused them to see that an insurrection to seize power was inevitable, and so they devised a plan in which Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Council (MRC), comprised of soldiers, sailors, and other militant workers, would take control of strategic buildings in Petrograd on the morning of October 25 and demand the Provisional Government’s surrender. If Kerensky and his ministers refused then the cannons of the Peter and Paul Fortress (which served mostly as a prison for political prisoners) would be fired as a signal for the Red Guards and the MRC to take the Winter Palace and capture the recalcitrant government officials. The first part of the plan went off rather well, and by noon the MRC was in control of the Mariinsky Palace and most of the communications of Petrograd. As far as things going according to plan though, that was about it. Unfortunately, when the Bolsheviks captured the Peter and Paul Fortress they realized that its cannons were more relics than anything else and did not actually fire so, given the Provisional Government’s decision to not give up, the plan’s timeline had to be pushed back a few hours until some functioning cannons could be found and hauled up to the fortress’s roof.
When these were located and laboriously brought up to the roof, the Bolsheviks couldn’t find anything to fire out of them so that part of the plan was scrapped and basically any hope of staying on the timeline that had been laid out was abandoned as well. As night was setting in, Plan B was to raise a red lantern up a flagpole on top of the fortress and let that be the signal, but red lanterns seemed to be out of stock at the moment so the commissar of the fortress, a man by the name of Blagonravov, went out to find one. The Gods who look out for such erstwhile revolutionaries must have already turned in for the night because Blagonravov soon found himself lost in the dark and then fell in a bog but finally located a lantern (which wasn’t red but at least it was something) and returned to the fortress. Unfortunately, the lantern he found couldn’t be fixed to the flagpole, and so no one surrounding the Winter Palace ever got a signal from the Peter and Paul Fortress.
All this worrying about was somewhat unnecessary though as most of the Winter Palace’s defenders had either joined the Bolsheviks or just went home. All that remained in the palace that day were about 3,000 soldiers including some Cossacks, a few cadets from the nearby military academies, and the Women’s Battalion of Death, and none of them were particularly willing to fight off the more many Bolsheviks. As the day turned to night and more Bolsheviks started to surround the palace, the defenders began to lose hope, and as it was getting close to dinner time, most decided it was as good a time as any to call it a day and go home. The MRC members and Red Guards outside the palace (some had already begun infiltrating it) just let the Provisional Government’s guards walk away mostly unmolested, and by that night only 300 defenders remained. Around seven that night the MRC gave the ministers the chance to surrender and come out, but this demand was rejected by what remained of the Provisional Government’s officials, and so the Bolsheviks outside the palace settled in to wait for the signal from the Peter and Paul Fortress, which of course never came. Eventually, the sailors of the Aurora in the harbor received word to start the assault and fired a blank shot to alert the Bolsheviks at the palace. The loud sound of the shot convinced the remaining defenders that, while the Winter Palace was undoubtedly lovely, maybe it wasn’t worth all this fuss, and so they left as well.
The Bolsheviks soon took over the palace after a brief shelling from the finally functioning and loaded cannons of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Aurora, and the Bolsheviks in the palace square (though few of the cannonballs actually hit the palace) and found the ministers awaiting their fate. Kerensky had already fled hours earlier in a car he stole from the American Embassy, but the rest of the ministers were arrested and taken to the fortress. The Provisional Government was no more, most of its last defenders made it home in time for dinner, the Women’s Battalion of Death hopefully decided to do the sensible thing and become a punk rock band, and the Bolsheviks found a fantastic supply of wine within the Winter Palace for their trouble in stopping by (though this wine would prove to be something of a problem in the coming days, that’s another story). And most of the people of Petrograd who were not in the immediate area of the palace were none the wiser that something happened until the next day.
Around the same time over at the Smolny Institute, which was the headquarters of the Bolsheviks and the Petrograd Soviet (a quasi-governmental body composed mostly of workers and soldiers from which many people in Russia took direction), Lenin had already announced that the Provisional Government had been overthrown, and all that was left was for the Soviet to seize power finally. The more moderate members of the Soviet, called Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), were less than pleased with how the Bolsheviks had orchestrated the assault on the Winter Palace and instead of working with the Bolsheviks (and Left SRs) to create a balanced Soviet government, decided to walk out instead. The remaining Soviet deputies that were opposed to the Bolsheviks were now outnumbered, and when they suggested a compromise, Trotsky ridiculed their lack of power and consigned them to the “dustbin of history.” There wasn’t much to say after that, and so the remaining opposition forces left as well. The Bolsheviks had won, the Petrograd Soviet was theirs, and soon (after a brutal civil war) all of Russia would also be.
Thus ends the story of the capture of the Winter Palace, the fall of the Provisional Government, and the ascent of the Bolsheviks. Blood didn’t flow from the former tsar’s palace. Petrograd didn’t erupt into chaos. All that was good and noble in Russia wasn’t suddenly and violently suffocated. Day broke on October 26th instead peacefully, but Russia had changed. Whether that was a good or bad thing is still up for debate.
Corney, Frederick C. Telling October: Memory and the Making of the Bolshevik Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Wade, Rex A. The Russian Revolution, 1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.