Excerpted from the book Poverty, Wealth Dictatorship, Democracy: Resource Scarcity and the Origins of Dictatorship
On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, a secretary of the Communist Central Committee, was fatally wounded by an assassin - shot in the back with a revolver - outside his office in Leningrad. Leonid Nikolaev, a young member of the Communist Party was arrested at the scene. Two of Nikolaev's friends would later confess to involvement in the murder as well. Stalin, after being notified by phone of the assassination, took a train from Moscow and arrived in Leningrad the next day to take charge of the investigation. During the investigation Stalin personally interrogated Nikolaev about the crime. The indictment handed down on December 27th, named, not only the three main conspirators, but also a group of party members, which the indictment called the "Leningrad Center." Following a brief trial, all those named in the indictment were executed on December 30th.
Perhaps the two undisputed facts of the case are that Kirov was shot on December 1, 1934 and that those indicted on December 27th were executed on December 30th. It also appears certain that Nikolaev was the actual gunman. What is in dispute is the extent of Stalin's involvement in the crime. By one account, Stalin, through his subordinates, actively planned Kirov's assassination. According to this version, Nikolaev had been detained, prior to the assassination, carrying a briefcase which contained a loaded pistol and a map of Kirov's routes. Although he was questioned by the deputy director of the Leningrad secret police, Ivan Zaporozhets, he was released, on instructions from Moscow. He was detained and ordered released on one, or possibly two, other occasions. On the day of the assassination, Zaporozhets arranged for Kirov's guard to be away from the scene of the attack. Kirov's bodyguard, Borisov, on the following day, was beaten to death on his way to talk to Stalin, although the death was staged to look like a traffic accident.
Other versions either contradict some of the facts or provide alternative interpretations. Nikolaev had been detained by the police, but only once, and he had not been acting suspiciously. The revolver used in the crime had been owned since 1918, and legally registered twice. Zaporozhets, the deputy director of the NKVD, (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) who supposedly questioned Nikolaev and aided him in the plot, had never met Nikolaev, and in fact, had been absent from Leningrad in the months prior to the assassination.
Whether Stalin was directly involved in the plot or not, he did not seem particularly distressed by Kirov's death. The fact that he acted quickly and in such a sweeping manner suggests, either that he participated in, or knew about, the plot, or that he had been planning some form of political repression prior to December 1, 1934. Kirov's death did provide a good excuse to institute a crackdown, which came with surprising speed. On the evening of December 1st, the same day the assassination occurred, Stalin had a decree issued which called for speeding up investigations of those accused of "terrorist acts." Much of the appeals process was eliminated - executions were not to be delayed by appeals - and capital sentences were to be carried out immediately following sentencing. The immediate result was the acceleration of investigations and an increase in the number of executions, even before those charged in Kirov's death had been tried. On December 5th, thirty-seven were executed. Throughout December, in different cities, Stalin's newest orders were carried out - twenty-nine shot in Moscow, thirty-nine in Leningrad, twenty-eight in Kiev, and nine in Minsk.
Stalin also had nineteen political opponents arrested and charged. Their trial took place in January 1935.In contrast to the death sentences handed out in December, the January defendants received prison sentences. About the same time, a separate set of "trials" was being held by a special board of the NKVD. The defendants in these inquiries, Communist Party members, were also sentenced to prison. This group was not even charged with involvement in Kirov's killing, simply with membership in the Leningrad and Moscow Center. In addition to these investigations and trials, former noblemen and officers, together with their families, were ordered deported from Leningrad.
The Kirov trials of late 1934 and the political trials of early 1935 were only a prelude to the Great Purges of 1936-1938 and the show trials which took place in those years. Arrests for the 1936 trials came in June of that year. Kamenev and Zinoviev, two opposition Party leaders, were arrested. They had been among those charged at the January 1935 trial and sentenced to prison following that trial. The brief 1936 trial lasted from August 19 until August 24. The defendants publicly confessed to their crimes, implicating themselves, not only in the Kirov assassination, but also in plots to kill Stalin and other Party leaders. They had no defense counsel and their confessions were the only evidence introduced in the trial. Kamenev, Zinoviev, and the other fourteen defendants were shot following the trial.
A 1937 trial took place in January, resulting in a sentence of death for thirteen defendants. The 1938 trial, in which twenty-two were charged, lasted from March 2nd to March 13th. Most, but not all, were sentenced to death - shot on March 15th. Recorded on film, the damning confessions of the accused, provided evidence for a wide range of crimes - sufficient, under Stalin's standards, for a conviction. The filmed record, with the defendants coming across at times as automatons, also reinforced the image of communism and Stalin as an evil philosophy with an ominously inhuman capacity to control human thought. The trials and executions in Moscow, though they caught the attention of the rest of the world, were not the only trials and killings which went on during the Great Purges. Outside Moscow and out of the limelight, Stalin's government eliminated more Party members or potential opposition.
From one perspective, the assassination of Sergei Kirov can be viewed as a significant watershed event, a sudden reversal of an otherwise "liberal" policy; from another, as just one of a series of events on the road to total dictatorship. December 1, 1934 was significant in that it either triggered the events which followed or at least represented the date on which increased political repression began. It has less significance when viewed in the overall context of political repression in the Soviet Union. The forced collectivization of agriculture, a policy which resulted in untold deaths, had been urged by Stalin in December of 1929, and implemented in the spring of 1930, some five years before Sergei Kirov's death. While Stalin perhaps perfected the political trial, he had not been the first to use it. In 1928, in what came to be known as the Shakhty case, the Party had formally charged 53 engineers and technicians in the coal industry with "wrecking." Wrecking was essentially a charge of sabotage, which could mean anything from deliberately setting off explosions to wasting materials. While many of the accused were sentenced to prison, five were actually executed. One difference in the conduct of the political trials was that, once Stalin had gained control, the proportion of those receiving a death sentence increased. Where the number of the accused receiving the death sentence was relatively small in the Shakhty case, the relationship was reversed after Stalin's rise. The majority of those accused were shot, a minority were sentenced to prison.
Many writings about the Russian Revolution have concentrated on the events of 1917 and the question of why the communists came to power. In some ways there has been an assumption that dictatorship was a foregone conclusion, once communism managed to gain a foothold in government. The period from the Russian Revolution through World War II was one of violent upheaval and brutal repression. The fact that political repression occurred under Joseph Stalin and the Soviet regime, i.e., after 1917, suggests that communism was the cause of political repression. That assumption also rests on the premise that communism was the only variable which had been introduced into the equation. There was another variable which was also present - scarcity. However, scarcity, or poverty, has been dismissed as just another product of communism. Russia, as it was emerging from the Czarist era, was on the verge of modernization. Conventional wisdom holds that poverty, like political repression, was just another example of the failure of communism. The question remains whether the basic assumption was correct. Was communism, in fact, the cause of political and economic failure in the Soviet Union?
In an attempt to establish the relationship between scarcity and repression, the logical order would be to look first at resources and then to look at any resulting violence and repression. A somewhat different approach might also be used. If scarcity will ultimately lead to repression, it should be possible to look at the end result, repression, and to work backwards to find scarcity present. In other words, if there is evidence of governmental repression, then there should be evidence that there is a scarcity of resources. With that in mind, the discussion begins by looking at the severity of repression in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
In looking at the level of repression in Russia, it is helpful to determine how much can be quantified, e.g., the number of executions or the number of people imprisoned. Repression obviously can take many forms. In its less severe forms, it can involve anything from government censorship of the press to restrictions on artistic expression. At its most sinister, it can involve murder and imprisonment. While there is some dispute as to the exact number of deaths which occurred under communist rule, there is no question that the number was extremely high.
The Soviet Union and communist regimes in general, have come to define the term "totalitarianism." Stalin's rule has also been characterized, with some justification, as diabolically evil. In analyzing any totalitarian form of government however, there is a danger in using such loaded terms. The argument cannot realistically be framed in absolutes such as good or evil. Even in the Soviet Union the extent or severity of repression has not remained the same. There have been periods of extreme repression and periods in which restrictions have been relaxed. In judging the totalitarian nature of Stalin's regime, the question which needs to be asked in quantitative terms. How repressive was the Soviet Union under the communists or during Stalin's time, in terms of the number of victims?
While there is some discrepancy in the numbers, depending on the source, the figures given are consistently high. A Pravda article by V. Kumanov gave the figure 353,074 as the number shot in 1937. (Medvedev's figure is 353,680.) Another author, V. Popov, gave the figure 328,618 as the number shot in 1938. There is an anomaly if the figures for these two years are compared with those for 1936 and 1939. The year 1937 represented a sharp increase from 1936 and the year 1939 showed a sudden reduction in the number executed compared to 1938. In 1936 only 1,118 were shot and 2,552 in 1939. (Medvedev's figure for 1936 is 1,116.) There are conflicting figures for the total number of executions which occurred during Stalin's time versus the number which occurred under Communist rule as a whole. One figure for the entire period from 1921 to 1953, 642,980, is lower than the number occurring during Stalin's time, 786,098, in the period from 1931 to 1953. Some perspective on the numbers is given by Roy Medvedev, when he notes that there were times in Moscow when the number of executions was as high as 1,000 a day, during 1937-1938.
The number of people imprisoned, by one estimate, was around 11.8 million for the period from 1930 to 1953. In 1955 the secret police would admit to having had files on 9.5 million people, although it was claimed that many of the detainees were, in fact, involved in criminal activity. The accuracy of any estimate is difficult to gauge because the Soviet government, in addition to imprisonment, could also exile political opponents. While not formally sentenced to prison, such individuals would be considered to be victims of political repression.
The intentional repression which occurred under the Soviet system, as represented by the number of people executed or imprisoned, is the primary focus of this book. Communist leaders have also been blamed for the mistakes and general shortcomings of the Communist system, not simply for deliberate acts. One aspect of this debate has involved the number of "excess" deaths, i.e., the number of deaths above what would be considered a normal mortality rate for the Soviet Union. There is disagreement in this area. At the low end are estimates suggesting that between four and eleven million died. Other calculations place the figure at around 20 million, or even as high as 40 million.
On the basis of the numbers, there is little doubt that Stalin's regime would be judged an extremely repressive one. If the thesis that repression, ultimately, is caused by resource scarcity, is correct then the next step is to look for proof of resource scarcity and violence. The key question is - Does the evidence suggest an extreme scarcity of resources?
The October Revolution of 1917 began, not with a grand assault, but with the taking of small strategic positions throughout Petrograd. On the night of October 24, 1917, members of the Bolshevik party took over guard duties at key posts throughout Moscow, simply by telling the members of the regular army to go home. The story of the October Revolution has come down to us in epic terms, enhanced in status by John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World", as well as by later events. Actual events were somewhat less heroic. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, spent most of the crucial last days before the revolt in disguise - hiding until his party had seized control. Instead of a grand assault there were several smaller attacks organized. They immediately fell apart when the attackers were fired on. The violent takeover of the government, for which the Bolsheviks received the most criticism in the West, involved only five deaths, some press releases, and the seizure of some undefended buildings. It was not an auspicious beginning.
On October 10, 1917 there had been a secret meeting of twelve members of the Bolshevik Central Committee, at the apartment of Nikolai Sukhanov in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). Lenin pushed for an immediate armed coup against the Provisional Government. While Lenin's push for immediate action was rejected, he nevertheless got 10 votes in favor of his plan. Implementation began on October 21st-22nd. It involved an effort to gain control of the military garrison in and around Petrograd, which numbered some 245,000. The Bolsheviks in early October had created a Military-Revolutionary Committee, known as the Milrevkom, charged with the defense of Petrograd. The fact that it was not a formal part of the government did not deter the Bolsheviks from asserting its authority over the Petrograd garrison.
On the night of October 21st-22nd, the Milrevkom sent a delegation to the headquarters of the Military Staff, demanding that the Military Staff cede part of its authority to the Milrevkom. The demand was rebuffed. The Military Staff countered with a demand that the Milrevkom retract its orders. The Milrevkom then attempted negotiation. While it did not win, the negotiation provided Kerensky's cabinet with hopeful signs of a compromise and they persuaded Kerensky not to arrest the Milrevkom.
Whether that decision was "the" fatal blunder for Kerensky or simply one of a series of mistakes, is not clear. He put off immediate decisive action in the apparent belief that his forces could deal with the Bolsheviks at any time. He had also earlier alienated many members of the military by accusing General Kornilov, one of Russia's military leaders, and other officers, of treason (August 1917). He and his cabinet took preliminary action on the night of October 23rd-24th, when four newspapers were ordered shut down - two Bolshevik papers and two right-wing papers. However, his attempt to organize a military defense was inadequate. He would not formally request troops from the front until the evening of October 24th, although government troops on hand were ordered to various strategic positions around Petrograd.
In defending the government, Kerensky was handicapped in two ways. First, governmental operations, by their nature, represented an obstacle. They were dispersed, the bureaucratic mechanism was weak, and the lack of leadership by Kerensky and those around him was a demoralizing influence on those within the government. From a military perspective, there were simply too many positions to defend around Petrograd and it was not clear to the defenders why any single position was worth defending. Second, Kerensky needed an enemy - a serious threat around which he could rally his forces. The Bolsheviks however were slow to provide him with any clear target.
The Bolsheviks were, in fact, both the enemy and a serious threat. Kerensky's problem was that he could not make the case that they were either. For one thing, he had compromised himself in August by appealing to the Bolsheviks for help in his attempt to fight the "conspiracy" against him by the generals. Having served as allies in August, it was difficult to argue with any credibility that they were enemies in October. For their part, the Bolsheviks made few overt threats against his government, even while they were putting their plan to overthrow it into operation. When faced with direct opposition, they sought compromise and "negotiated." In public statements they asserted they were not attacking the government, only defending the Revolution.
In spite of Kerensky's indecision, his military forces actually made the first decisive move in the escalating battle with the Bolsheviks. Just after midnight on the night of October 23rd-24th, governmental units took up positions at the Winter Palace and moved to occupy other strategic positions around the city. They closed down the two Bolshevik papers, and, in an attempt to disrupt communications for the Bolshevik command structure, disconnected telephone lines to Smolnyi. The Bolsheviks had convened the Second Congress of Soviets there and the military no doubt felt cutting off communications would help to contain the coup. To prevent the physical movement of Bolshevik troops, bridges over the Neva were ordered raised.
While the Bolshevik response was decisive, the Bolsheviks continued to avoid any all out or direct confrontation. Their first "victory" was the reopening, on October 24th, of the two papers shut down the previous night. The Central Telegraph Office and the Russian Telegraphic Agency were then occupied. The Smolnyi telephone lines were restored. The Bolsheviks would now attempt to disrupt governmental communications by disconnecting telephone lines to the Winter Palace.
These first Bolshevik victories may have been small, but they provided sufficient encouragement for further action. The next confrontation was another victory - the bridges over the Neva were lowered on the afternoon of October 24.As evening wore on, Bolshevik forces expanded control. The Winter Palace remained under government control, but seemingly unimportant positions were occupied throughout the city. The Bolsheviks took over post offices, railroad stations, and telephone centers. This part of the takeover proved bloodless. Loyal troops obeyed orders simply to go home - even though the orders were given by the Bolsheviks. Those who did refuse were disarmed. Surprisingly, the headquarters of the Military Staff itself, located in the Engineers' Palace, had not been guarded. The Bolsheviks took this simply by walking in and taking over from those on duty. The Winter Palace however, was still in government hands at midnight on October 24th.
It still had not fallen at 9 a.m. on October 25th, when Kerensky slipped out of the building in a U.S. embassy car, intent on reaching the front lines and bringing regular troops back. With Kerensky gone, government forces now found something Kerensky had not supplied - a real enemy and something to defend of more importance than a railroad station.
Despite the near total control of Petrograd by the Bolsheviks on the morning of October 25th, Lenin hesitated at making any official proclamation regarding the takeover. He wanted the government ministers under arrest - then he would announce that the Provisional Government had been deposed. The ministers, perhaps surprised by the seemingly total victory of the Bolsheviks, waited inside the Winter Palace. At dawn the Bolshevik forces made their first attempt to take it. They moved toward the Palace - until the defenders started shooting at them. They quickly retreated.
At 10 a.m. Lenin officially proclaimed the Provisional Government deposed, although the government forces still held the Palace and the ministers were not under arrest. The situation had not changed by 2 p.m. when the Bolsheviks received reinforcements, in the form of 5,000 sailors from the nearby naval base at Kronstadt. A second assault was attempted. It too fell apart as soon as it received gunfire from the Palace. At 6:30 p.m., the Bolsheviks tried to bluff the ministers into surrender by issuing an ultimatum - if the Winter Palace was not surrendered, then the cruiser Aurora, anchored in the harbor, would open fire, along with the fortresses Peter and Paul. The ministers ignored the ultimatum. At 9 p.m. the Bolsheviks made good on their threat - or at least tried to. While the Aurora did open fire, it had no live rounds. So it fired a single salvo of blanks. The Peter and Paul fortresses began firing around 11 p.m.. While their guns did have live rounds, only two rounds actually managed to hit the Winter Palace, out of the 30 to 35 fired. The two rounds which did hit did very little damage. Some of the Red Guard, a Bolshevik militia force, managed to get inside the Winter Palace through an unguarded entrance. However, when some of the defenders met them and ordered them to surrender, they obeyed.
The defenders inside the Winter Palace were not demoralized by the attacks of the Bolsheviks, as inept and ineffective as they were. However, when it appeared that Kerensky's promised help would not arrive in the immediate future, they began to leave. The Cossacks and officers withdrew, leaving only the Women's Death Battalion and some cadets as the last defenders. Either because there was no command structure left, or because the defenders were concentrated on other things, the crowds besieging the Palace managed to approach in the darkness without being fired upon. Eventually some were able to enter the Palace. The weight of numbers was sufficient against the now small force still resisting. Once in Bolshevik hands the mob began to loot what treasures were left there. The ministers, who had remained in the Palace, were finally arrested at 2:10 a.m. on October 26.
The "violent" overthrow of the Russian government, for which the Bolsheviks have been condemned, has perhaps been associated most closely with the events in Petrograd. Yet that violence involved only five deaths. It was in Moscow where the first serious violence would occur in the opening days of the Revolution. In the Moscow fighting, the Bolsheviks would still embarrass themselves, as at Petrograd, yet they would also display some of the determination which the Russian army would later show at Stalingrad and in other battles fought against the Nazi armies during the Second World War. The fighting in Moscow in the first days of the October Revolution would be house-to-house. In contrast to Bolshevik actions at Petrograd, where a few shots were enough to cause retreat, in Moscow the Bolsheviks maintained a relentless assault.
The arrest of the ministers at the Winter Palace in Petrograd, had occurred just after 2 a.m. on the morning of October 26th. Just four hours before that, in Moscow, at 10 p.m., the Moscow Revolutionary Committee (MRC) issued a statement that the Moscow garrison should only follow orders given by the Revolutionary Committee. The order had no legal effect, but the tactic of issuing such a statement had successfully confused those in charge at Petrograd. The next morning (October 26th), the Revolutionary Committee moved to secure the Kremlin, the fortress in central Moscow. Two commissars appeared at the fortress, ordering the troops to hand over command. Since one of the commissars was the commanding officer of the troops stationed there, they obeyed. The plan was to distribute the weapons stored there to the Red Guard.
Government leaders in Moscow were not caught completely off guard by the maneuverings of the Bolsheviks. The Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR), while a left-wing party, opposed the actions the Bolsheviks had taken at Petrograd. The SR leader in Moscow, V. V. Rudnev, began reporting to the Moscow Duma, one of the representative assemblies, what was happening in Petrograd, on October 25th. One part of his report also referred to actions the Bolsheviks had taken in Moscow itself - the seizure of the post and telegraph offices. His report, and the more determined Moscow opposition to Bolshevik actions, provided support for the formation of the Committee of Public Security, intended to counter the Bolsheviks, at least in Moscow. A military force was assembled, which included cadets from the Moscow military academies.
Even as Rudnev put his defensive plans into operation, the Bolsheviks were moving. The October 26th attempt to gain the Kremlin was only one part of their plan. They had also moved in the outlying districts, where they were successful in gaining control. It was, in fact, to arm the workers that the attempt to take over the Kremlin was made. The Bolsheviks were thwarted in their plan to distribute the arms stored in the Kremlin by the arrival of the Committee of Public Security troops, who surrounded the Kremlin. The resulting stalemate caused both sides to enter into negotiations. Colonel K. I. Riabtsev, in charge of the SR forces, was expecting reinforcements and hoped to reduce the number of defenders inside the Kremlin. He did get the MRC to agree to withdraw one of the regiments inside the Kremlin, in return for which he agreed to withdraw his own forces. While reinforcements had been sent, few arrived to help Riabtsev - the Bolsheviks were able to persuade enough among them not to involve themselves.
The stalemate lasted through most of the day on October 27th. Concluding that no further reinforcements could be expected, toward evening, Riabtsev ordered his forces to take up positions around the Kremlin. Fighting erupted after the forces were in position, resulting in heavy casualties. Riabtsev managed to secure the surrender of the Kremlin the next morning by telephoning those inside and convincing the defenders that the rest of Moscow was in the hands of the SR forces and that he would use artillery against the Kremlin if there was no surrender.
Despite this victory, the government hesitated. The MRC leadership was not arrested. Still hoping for regular reinforcements, the government tried further negotiation. The Bolsheviks, while negotiating, moved to recover their losses. The soldiers who had been forced from the Kremlin, began an effort to take the center of Moscow. They did not organize an all out assault. Instead they began fighting the government forces street by street, gradually pushing them back. Each side numbered around 15,000 soldiers. A 24-hour cease-fire was arranged, starting at midnight on October 29th. Both sides expected reinforcements. Government reinforcements did not come. The Bolsheviks, in contrast, were able to call on surrounding towns for help. At midnight on October 30th, they felt strong enough to resume fighting and broke off the cease-fire. For the next three days they would battle the loyalist soldiers in house-to-house fighting. The battle ended on November 2nd, when the Committee of Public Safety ordered its forces to surrender.
With only two cities under their control, the Bolsheviks did not have control of Russia. Gaining control of Petrograd and Moscow, as major political centers and sources of symbolic power, carried the Bolsheviks a long way toward that goal, however. At the same time, they had no government apparatus in place to take over other areas. The ability to physically assert control was limited, since the regular army was still fighting the Germans. On the other hand, the use of force, in governing Russia was not really necessary in 1917. Much of the populace was indifferent. They were not that concerned about the fall of the Provisional Government, indifferent to the rise of the Bolsheviks.
Conventional wisdom in the West has it that the Russian people were "fooled" into supporting the Bolsheviks because they would not reveal their true intentions until after they had seized power - suggesting that the peasants would have marched on Moscow at the time, if they had known what was going on. It is true that the communists were not exactly forthcoming about their plans. While they had general goals, they provided no specific details or concrete plans. The term "socialism" was not a popular one and Bolsheviks purposely avoided using it in their first public statements. In fact they tried to give the impression that the overthrow of the Provisional Government was nothing more than a routine transfer of political power.
The control of Petrograd and Moscow, while it did not establish control of Russia as a whole, did provide a crucial foothold. In the period immediately following the October coup, the Bolsheviks acted to consolidate their power in the regions surrounding those two cities, as well as to begin to extend power to more distant regions. Consolidation in the Moscow and Petrograd area involved direct force, combined with coercive threats, while attempts at expanding long-term power in other areas involved a public relations battle and the use of political persuasion.
The disarray and seeming disorganization displayed by the Bolsheviks at Petrograd stood in sharp contrast to the discipline and effectiveness their forces would show in the regions nearby. All of Estonia came under Bolshevik control on October 27th, when the Bolsheviks removed the Provisional Government representatives from power. Bolshevik infantry units from Latvia were ordered into the towns of Wenden, Wolmar, Walk, and Iuriev. The town of Walk was similarly taken over by military forces and the Second Congress of Soviets of Latvia in mid-November recognized the new Bolshevik regime as the legitimate power in Latvia.
The beginning of the Revolution can be dated to the events of October 24th, when the Bolsheviks moved to take over Petrograd. The end of the Revolution is more difficult to determine. The Russian Civil War and the revolution would not be over until 1921 - it took that long for the Bolsheviks to achieve victory and to gain control of Russia. In another sense, the Bolsheviks achieved legitimacy on November 2, 1917, when the Provisional Government ordered its forces to lay down their arms and surrender the Kremlin. What occurred between 1917 and 1921 was the reaction of a government which had already achieved power.
In January 1918 the Bolsheviks seem to have been sufficiently in control to say that the first phase of the revolution was over. On January 5th, a march was held in Petrograd, intended both to show support for the newly elected Constituent Assembly as well as opposition to Bolshevik policies. Troops, armed with rifles and machine guns, opened fire on the marchers, not once, out of panic, but several times. Between eight and twenty-one people were killed. In hindsight, it is not so much the fact that Bolshevik forces were bold enough to fire on unarmed demonstrators which is surprising, instead it is the lack of any real reaction. While condemned, the killings did not spark any activity on the part of the opposition.
The first indication of what Bolshevik government would be like came on October 27, 1917, when Lenin, without formal governmental approval, issued a Decree on the Press, which outlawed opposition newspapers. The measure was clearly aimed at the non-Bolshevik press, although by July of 1918, Lenin would also turn it against Bolshevik papers which criticized the government. A more far-reaching action was taken on November 4th. In spite of Lenin's outlawing of opposition newspapers, there were a number of legislative and procedural safeguards in place which restricted his ability to enact laws. On October 26th, Lenin had set up a Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom) which was the Bolshevik equivalent of the old Provisional Government. Sovnarkom was intended to be only a temporary body, which would govern until an elected Constituent Assembly was in place. Lenin was persuaded to act as president. An important legislative restriction on Sovnarkom was oversight by the Congress of Soviets, and by the Central Executive Committee, a body which included non-Bolsheviks. What Lenin wanted was the elimination of this oversight. In order to achieve this, he needed to persuade a majority of the members of the Central Executive Committee to give up this power. At a November 4th meeting, the preliminary vote was tied at 23-23. Lenin and Trotsky, who had no right to vote, announced that they were voting anyway and carried the motion with their two votes, 25-23. Sovnarkom was now free to issue decrees, without fear of having them reversed.
The first serious threat to the new government came, not so much from the defeated military forces of the opposition, but from civil servants in Moscow and Petrograd. They went on strike. While the Bolsheviks may have thought that the physical occupation of strategic positions alone would give them power, they soon found that the ability to keep those facilities in service was almost as important. The strike began in the governmental ministries. Instead of direct confrontation with the Bolshevik ministers, they used the opposite course of action - they went home. While the Bolsheviks issued orders there was no one to obey them. The strike spread from government agencies to other institutions. First, telephone and telegraph workers, then pharmacists, water transport workers, and schoolteachers joined the strike.
The most serious of the work stoppages involved the state financial institutions. The State Bank and State Treasury refused to honor requests for funds drawn by the Sovnarkom. The Bolsheviks first tried threats to obtain money. On October 30th, private bank directors were threatened with arrest if they refused to honor Sovnarkom checks and drafts. The Bolshevik Commissar of Finance, V. R. Menzhinskii, on November 7th attempted to intimidate the State Bank by bringing a group of armed sailors and demanding a million rubles. For some reason he brought along a military band as well. Bank officials again refused to give him the money. Again on November 11th he tried the same tactic, using more troops. Once more the bank refused his request. On November 14th, State Bank employees defiantly voted to continue the strike. At the State Treasury, a similar vote by the staff resulted in a decision to deny the Sovnarkom funds. The Bolsheviks lost patience on November 17th when Menzhinskii and his troops forced officials at the State Bank to open the vaults. Menzhinskii then appropriated 5 million rubles. While the resistance of the financial institutions was only one way in which anti-Bolshevik feelings were displayed, it was the reason Lenin would create the Cheka, the security police, on December 7, 1917.
Ironically, the Bolsheviks finally were able to break the strike by resorting to management methods more expected from their capitalist foes - they offered promotions to staff members who would agree to work for Sovnarkom. Combined with the physical occupation of buildings and the firing of uncooperative directors and managers the tactic brought some stability to governmental operations. The end of the strike would not come until January 1918. Its end however, meant the elimination of a small, but important, roadblock in the control of the Russian government. There were still legal obstacles to full control which remained. One of these was the Constituent Assembly.
The Provisional Government, in August, had called for elections for a new Constituent Assembly, to be held on November 12, 1917. While the Bolsheviks attempted to make it difficult for other parties to campaign, they nevertheless allowed the elections to take place, perhaps in the belief that they could win. They provided no specific details of their plans, relying instead on a more general appeal to the solidarity of the workers and on Lenin's belief that the SR members would defeat themselves. The appeal was unsuccessful, although the Bolsheviks, even with such a vague plan, did manage to come in second. Voter turn-out was high. In the countryside, voting percentages were as high as 80, even as high as 97 percent. In the capital cities, it reached 70 percent. Voting was by secret ballot. When the voting was over on November 19th, the SR's had captured 17,864,000, or 40 %, while the Bolsheviks received 10,649,000, for 23.9%.The Kadet Party received 2,099,000, or 4.7%, and the Mensheviks received 1,158,000, or 2.3%.
Despite the direction of popular opinion the results indicated, the Bolsheviks decided to challenge the results and to obstruct their implementation. Their first tactic was to postpone the originally scheduled November 28th meeting date for the Assembly. They charged that there had been abuses in the election procedures. When the Electoral Commission refused to hand over its files to Sovnarkom, the commissioners were arrested. When released from prison on November 28th, they continued meeting, in defiance of M. S. Uritskii, the newly appointed Bolshevik head of the Electoral Commission. However Uritskii ordered the meeting place surrounded with larger and larger contingents of armed troops. The most decisive action was the outlawing of the Constitutional-Democratic Party. This was followed on November 28th by Lenin's order to arrest the leaders of the Kadet Party. While most were released later, two were murdered in the prison hospital by Bolshevik sailors.
Opposition to the Bolsheviks now grew more determined and serious, yet it also had a naive aspect. An extremist SR faction tried to assassinate Lenin on January 1, 1918, but the attempt was bungled and only succeeded in wounding slightly someone who was riding with Lenin. The assassination attempt was the more serious side of opposition. The naive side showed itself on January 5, 1918, the day the Constituent Assembly was scheduled to convene. Opposition leaders had called for a march and demonstration in Petrograd against Bolshevik policies and intended to show support for the Assembly. The naivety was not evidenced in the demonstrations themselves, but by the belief that mere shows of popular opposition would be enough to persuade the Bolsheviks to change policy. The Bolsheviks stationed troops armed with rifles and machine guns along the route of the march. There was more than one route the marchers intended to take. As the main march reached one intersection there were cheers for the Constituent Assembly - at which point the troops fired. While some demonstrators fell, the march nevertheless continued, and was fired on again as it proceeded. Other marches were similarly attacked. It is not known how many were killed - between eight and twenty-one. Fear of popular reaction may account, in part, for the fact that the soldiers were so easily provoked. Lenin apparently was unsure whether his forces could withstand a determined action by his opponents.
In spite of the promise which the election results held for democracy, the Constituent Assembly would last barely one day. Its one and only session opened at 4 p.m. on January 5, 1918 and was dissolved by the Bolsheviks sometime after midnight on the same day. The Bolsheviks, almost by sheer will and boldness, prevented the opposition from mounting any force effective enough to reverse the action. Neither the killings nor the decision to dissolve the Assembly provoked any determined national outburst. The Bolsheviks benefited from several circumstances. First, there was no united opposition or single opposition party. What opposition leadership there was could not decide on a single plan or even to offer an alternative. Second, the opposition leadership seemed universally opposed to the use of force. Even when soldiers offered assistance to defend the Constituent Assembly, it was turned down. Third, the majority of Russians were not committed to any great extent to the government represented by the Constituent Assembly.
By January 5th, the best opportunities for toppling Lenin and his government had been lost. The Bolshevik Revolution did not topple the Czar, rather it brought down the Provisional Government. The Czar had handed over power in February 1917 to the Provisional Government. Two major questions are, why the Czar had felt compelled to relinquish power, and why the Provisional Government lasted for only a short time.
Robert Conquest, "The Harvest of Sorrow," Oxford University Press, (New York, NY 1986).
R. W. Davies, Mark Harrison, and S. G. Wheatcroft, eds., "The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945," Cambridge University Press, (New York, NY 1994).
Sheila Fitzpatrick, "Stalin's Peasants: Resistance & Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization," Oxford University Press, (New York, NY 1994).
J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, eds. "Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives," Columbia University Press, (New York, NY 1993).
Roy Medvedev, "Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism," Columbia University Press, (New York, NY 1989).
Eugene H. Methvin, "Hitler & Stalin - Twentieth-Century Superkillers," National Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 10 (May 31, 1985), p. 24.
Alec Nove, "An Economic History of the USSR: 1917-1991," Alfred A. Knopf, (New York, NY 1990).
Richard Pipes, "Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime," Alfred A. Knopf, (New York, NY 1993).
Richard Pipes, "The Russian Revolution," Alfred A. Knopf, (New York, NY 1990).
Harrison E. Salisbury, "Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917," Doubleday & Company, Inc., (Garden City, NY 1978).
Robert C. Tucker, "Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941," W. W. Norton & Company, (New York, NY 1992).