To mark the 103rd anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Rebel republishes a short extract from Victor Serge’s classic account, Year One of the Russian Revolution.
The Taking of the Winter Palace1
Three comrades had been deputed to organize the seizure of the Winter Palace: Podvoisky, Antonov-Ovseyenko and Lashevich. With them Chudnovsky was working, a splendid militant from the earliest days of the party, who was soon to meet his death in the Ukraine. The former Imperial residence is situated in the centre of the city on the banks of the Neva; the Peter-Paul Fortress faces it 600 yards away on the other bank. To the south, the palace’s facade looks out over a vast paved square which contains the Alexander I Column. A historic spot. At the back of the square, in a semi-circle, lie the huge, respectable offices of the former War Department and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Over this square, in 1879, the revolver shots fired by the student Soloviev cracked out, and the autocrat Alexander II could be seen running zigzag across the stones, with his head down, and pale with fright. In 1881 these dismal buildings were rocked by the dynamite charge set off under the Imperial apartments by the carpenter Stepan Khalturin. Under these windows, on 22 January 1905, soldiers opened fire on a crowd of workers who had come, carrying ikons and singing hymns, to petition the Tsar, the ‘little father’ of his people. Here lay about fifty dead and more than a thousand wounded; and the autocracy was wounded, too, to the death, by its own bullets.
Now, on 25 October, from the morning onwards, the Bolshevik regiments and the Red Guards began to encircle the Winter Palace, where Kerensky’s government had its offices. The assault was planned for 9 p.m., although Lenin was impatient and wanted it all over before then. While the iron ring closed slowly around the Palace, the Congress of the Soviets was assembling at Smolny, in a former high school for young ladies of the nobility. In a small room in the same building, Lenin was pacing up and down nervously, still an outlaw, still in his old man’s disguise. Of every new arrival, he asked, ‘The Palace – has it not been taken yet ?’ His fury mounted against the ditherers, the procrastinators, the indecisive ones. He threatened Podvoisky – ‘We shall have to shoot him, yes, shoot him!’ The soldiers, huddled around fires in the streets near the Palace, showed the same impatience. People heard them murmur about how ‘the Bolsheviks are starting to play at diplomacy too’. Once more, Lenin’s feelings even on a point of detail were those of the mass. Podvoisky, certain of victory, kept back the assault. The doomed enemy was demoralized with all the anxiety. Revolutionary blood was now easily spared, and each drop was precious.
The first summons to surrender was conveyed to the ministers at six o’clock. At eight, there was a second ultimatum. Under a flag of truce, a Bolshevik orator addressed the defenders of the palace, and the soldiers of a crack battalion crossed over to the revolutionaries. They were welcomed by loud hurrahs over the square which was now the field of battle. A few minutes later, the Women’s Battalion surrendered. The terrified ministers, guarded in a vast room without lighting by a few young officer-cadets, still hesitated to give in. Kerensky had run off, promising them that he would return shortly at the head of a troop of loyal soldiers. They expected to be torn to pieces by a howling mob. The guns of the Aurora – firing only blank cartridges! – finally demoralized the defending side. The Reds’ attack met only very slight resistance. Grenades exploded on the great marble staircases, there were hand-to-hand tussles in the corridors. In the twilight of a great ante-chamber, a thin line of pale cadets stood with bayonets crossed before a panelled door.
It is the last rampart of the last bourgeois government of Russia. Antonov-Ovseyenko, Chudnovsky and Podvoisky push past these powerless bayonets. One youngster whispers to them, ‘I’m on your side!’ Behind the door is the Provisional Government: thirteen wretched, trembling gentlemen, thirteen crestfallen faces hidden by shadow. As they are escorted out of the Palace by Red Guards, a cry for their blood goes up. Some soldiers and sailors have a fancy for a massacre. The worker-guards restrain them: ‘Don’t spoil the proletarian victory by excesses!’
The ministers of Kerensky go off to the Peter-Paul Fortress, that old Bastille which has held all the old martyrs of Russian freedom. There they meet the ministers of the last Tsar. It is all over.
In the adjoining areas of the city, normal traffic had not been interrupted. On the quays, the idlers were staring peaceably.
One detail more on the organization of the attack. In order to ensure that any temporary successes won by the enemy should not interrupt their work, the military leaders of the uprising had pre-pared two reserve headquarters.
The Congress of the Soviets
Just as the Reds are surrounding the Winter Palace, the Petrograd Soviet meets. Lenin comes out of hiding, and he and Trotsky announce the seizure of power. The Soviets will offer a just peace to all the belligerent powers; the secret treaties are going to be published. Lenin’s first words underline the importance of the bond between workers and peasants, which is yet to be consolidated:
All over Russia, the vast majority of peasants have said: Enough of playing with the capitalists, we are marching now with the workers! One single decree, abolishing the landlords’ property, will win us the trust of the peasantry. They will realize that their only safety lies in their association with the workers. We shall inaugurate workers’ control of industry
The All-Russian Congress of Soviets opens in the evening in the great white ballroom at Smolny, flooded with light from enormous chandeliers. 562 delegates are present: 382 Bolsheviks, thirty-one non-party Bolshevik sympathizers, seventy Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, thirty-six Centre Socialist-Revolutionaries, sixteen Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, three National Socialist-Revolutionaries, fifteen United Internationalist Social-Democrats, twenty-one Menshevik supporters of national defence, seven Social-Democratic delegates from various nationalist groups and five anarchists. The hall is packed tight, the atmosphere is feverish. The Menshevik Dan opens the Congress on behalf of the outgoing All-Russian Executive; as the new officers are elected, guns thunder on the Neva. The resistance at the Winter Palace is still dragging on. Kamenev, ‘dressed in his Sunday best, and beaming’, becomes Chairman in place of Dan. He proposes an agenda with three headings: organization of authority; war and peace; the Constituent Assembly. The oppositional Menshevik and S-R parties take the floor first. For the Mensheviks there is Martov, their most honest and talented leader, whose extreme physical weakness seemed to symbolize the bankruptcy, despite his great personal courage, of the ideology he served. ‘Martov, planted on the rostrum as usual, with a trembling, bloodless hand over his hip, an undulating, half-comical figure, shaking his head of unruly hair, urges a peaceful solution to the conflict …’ A fine time to say it! Mstislavsky speaks for the Left S-Rs. His party mistrusted the Provisional Government and was sympathetic to the seizure of power by the Soviets, but had refused to join in the rising. His speech is one qualification after another. Yes, all power to the Soviets – particularly since they have already seized power. But military operations must be stopped immediately. How could we deliberate in the middle of gunfire? To this, Trotsky replies with alacrity: ‘Who, now, is going to be upset by the sound of the guns? On the contrary, it can only improve our work!’
The roar of the guns makes the glass in the windows rattle. The Mensheviks and Right S-Rs denounce the ‘crime which is taking place against Fatherland and Revolution’, and a sailor from the cruiser Aurora comes to the rostrum to answer them.2
“A bronzed figure he was [Mstislavsky relates], with brusque, confident gestures, and a voice that came straight out, cutting the air like a knife. As soon as he mounted the rostrum, stocky and sinuous, his shaggy chest showing below the high collar that curved back gracefully around his tousled head, the hall rang with cheers. … ‘The Winter Palace is finished,’ he said. ‘The Aurora is firing at point-blank range.’
“‘Oh!’ groaned the Menshevik Abramovich, standing up distraught and twisting his hands. ‘Oh!’ The man from the Aurora responded to this outcry with a large-hearted, graceful gesture, and made haste to calm Abramovich down with a loud whisper that trembled with quiet laughter: ‘They’re firing with blanks. That’s all that will be needed for the ministers and the ladies of the Women’s Battalion.’ Tumult in the hall. The Mensheviks of national defence and the right S-Rs, about sixty delegates, leave, determined ‘to die with the Provincial Government’. They do not get very far: their diminutive procession finds the streets barred to them by the Red Guards, and disperses one by one …”
Late in the night, the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries resolved in the end to follow the Bolsheviks and remain in the Congress.
Lenin did not come to the rostrum until the session of the following morning, when the great decrees on land, peace and workers’ control of production were voted. His appearance set off an immense acclamation from the whole hall. He waited for it to end, looking out calmly over the triumphant crowd. Then, quite simply, without any gesture, his two hands resting on the stand, his broad shoulders leaning forward slightly, he said:
‘We will proceed to construct the Socialist order.’