Russian revolution timeline
This is the third in
our series on the events of 1917. Dates are given in the old style
Julian calendar used in Russia at the time. This was 13 days earlier
than the Gregorian calendar (adopted in Russia in 1918).
The mass movement
triggered by the February revolution has forced the tsar to
abdicate. A Provisional Government has been appointed. Alongside
this unstable and weak administration, councils (soviets) of workers
and soldiers are playing an ever important role. However, the
right-wing leadership of the soviets – including and above all in
the capital Petrograd – cannot deliver the bread, peace and land
demanded by the masses.
3: Lenin, Zinoviev
and 17 other Bolsheviks (among other activists) arrive from exile at
Finland station, Petrograd, to a huge welcome. In a short speech,
Lenin shocks those (including in his own party) expecting bland
words of greeting with his full support for the revolutionary masses
and international socialist revolution. All the way to the Bolshevik
HQ, Lenin addresses the crowds.
4: Lenin explains
his April Theses to Bolsheviks at the HQ, then at another meeting to
Bolshevik and Menshevik members.
7: Pravda, the
Bolsheviks’ paper, publishes the April Theses – Kamenev’s preface
denounces Lenin’s ‘scheme’ as ‘unacceptable’. A subsequent Bolshevik
Petrograd Committee rejects the theses 13 votes to 2 with 1
abstention. Lenin takes the campaign to the party’s membership.
14: At another
Petrograd Bolshevik meeting, Lenin’s demand for the transfer of
power from the Provisional Government to the Soviet beats Kamenev’s
cautious call merely for ‘the most vigilant watch’ of the government
by 20:6 with 9 abstentions.
demonstrations celebrate international workers’ day – May Day in the
western Gregorian calendar. Pavel Milyukov, foreign affairs
minister, telegrams Russia’s war allies stating that the Provisional
Government will continue the agreement with Britain, France and the
USA, and will not make a separate peace with Germany,
Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Turkey.
20-21: News of the
telegram provokes mass, armed protests in Petrograd against the
government’s war aims, Milyukov, and the Provisional Government
itself. The right-wing Kadet party organises counter-demos of
officers and middle class layers. Clashes and armed confrontations
occur. The Petrograd Soviet executive, led by right-wing socialist
Mensheviks and the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries, bans
meetings and protests for 48 hours.
20: Trotsky is
released from his five-week (illegal) detention by British
authorities in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Canada. He and his
family resume their journey to Russia.
Provisional Government announces it will move to form a coalition
including right-wing socialists. Russia’s war allies pile pressure
on the Provisional Government to launch a new military offensive –
partly to stop revolution spreading to French and British troops.
The imperialist powers send social democratic leaders to put their
case – such as Arthur Henderson (leading Labour Party figure in
Britain’s coalition cabinet), and Emile Vandervelde (Belgian
president of the Second International).
all-Russia Bolshevik Party conference overwhelmingly approves the
transfer of power to the soviets by 149:3 with 8 abstentions. The
Bolsheviks now number 79,000 – 15,000 in Petrograd.
30: Minister of
war, Alexander Guchkov, resigns as a result of the mass pressure.
Lenin’s April Theses
The theses were Lenin’s
wake-up call to the Bolshevik party, whose leadership in Russia had
failed to keep up with events following the February revolution.
This was made worse in March when Stalin and Kamenev arrived in
Petrograd from exile in Siberia. They shifted the Bolsheviks’
political line further to the right, calling for conditional support
for the Provisional Government, and for reconciliation with the
They saw the revolution
as the start of a period of capitalist economic and political
development, relegating the role of the working class to supporters
of the ‘liberal’ government – and any idea of socialism to some dim
and distant future.
This caused confusion
among Bolshevik members, especially working-class activists in the
middle of the mass struggle. The Provisional Government was made up
of landlords, capitalists and tsarist sympathisers. It could never
end the war, distribute land, provide food or meet workers’ demands.
To suggest otherwise was to sow dangerous illusions.
On the other hand, the
soviets – although led by right-wingers – were based on the
collective strength of the organised working class, the only force
capable of driving through the radical change needed. Unless the
soviets took power, counter-revolution and military rule would
In the April Theses,
Lenin called on the Bolsheviks to campaign to win over the soviets
to a socialist programme based on the independent action of the
working class. He set 1917 Russia against the background of further
revolutionary movements internationally.
Lenin demanded: no
support for the Provisional Government; all power to the soviets;
end the war; confiscate the big landed estates; nationalise the
banks; establish workers’ control of industry; replace the
police/army with a workers’ militia; replace the old state
bureaucracy with a workers’ administration; proclaim a Communist
Party; establish a new international.
This programme set him at
odds with Stalin, Kamenev and the majority on the Bolshevik Central
Committee still clinging to old, routinist positions which, in those
revolutionary times, had long passed their use-by date.
In the April Theses,
Lenin’s thinking coincided with the theory of ‘permanent
revolution’, Leon Trotsky’s 1906 analysis of the first Russian
revolution. This remained Trotsky’s perspective in 1917.
Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Mezhraiontsy
The Russian Social
Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was formed in 1898 to bring together
the numerous Marxist and revolutionary groups in the Russian empire.
On 17 November 1903, at a
conference in London, it split into two main camps: the Bolsheviks
(meaning ‘majority’) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (‘minority’)
headed by Julius Martov.
Various trends continued
to exist in the RSDLP. Trotsky, for instance, although politically
aligned with the Bolsheviks, attempted to unify the factions for
several years, remaining independent of both the Bolsheviks and
In 1912, the RSDLP-Bolsheviks
became a separate party.
At a crucial stage in
1917, Trotsky and his organisation, the Mezhraiontsy, merged with
the Bolsheviks in full political and organisational agreement.
Mezhraiontsy translates as ‘inter-district committee’ – its
political meaning was that it stood between the different socialist
Throughout this time,
socialists and Marxists often called themselves ‘social democrats’.
The term was linked to the revolutionary movement and ideology
founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-1800s. Today,
it is usually used by mainstream media to refer to ‘moderate’,
‘centre-left’ (pro-establishment) parties.
In 1918, the Bolshevik
party changed its name to the (All) Russian Communist Party. This
was one of the demands in the April Theses. Lenin’s aim was to state
clearly the need for communist (or socialist) change – and to
distance the party from the other ‘social democratic’ groups which
were selling out the workers, soldiers and peasants.
Lenin linked this to the
call for a new international: for a break from the Second
International of mass social democratic parties which had backed the
imperialist powers during the first world war. They had been
complicit in the slaughter of millions of people, betraying the
basic Marxist principles of workers’ solidarity and socialist