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THE BIG QUESTIONHow did the Bolsheviks gain power, and how did they consolidate their rule?

HEADLINE QUESTIONSHow effectively did the Provisional Government rule Russia in 1917?Why were the Bolsheviks able to seize power in November 1917?Why did the Bolsheviks win the Civil War?How far was the New Economic Policy a success?

CONTENT THAT YOU NEED TO KNOWThe Provisional Government and the Soviets;The growing power of revolutionary groups;Reasons for the failure of the Provisional Government;The Bolshevik seizure of power;The role of Lenin;The main features of Bolshevik rule;The Civil War and War Communism;Reasons for the Bolshevik victory;The Kronstadt Rising and the establishment of the New Economic Policy.
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The October Revolution (aka the Bolshevik/November Revolution)

  • In September Leon Trotsky became leader of the Military Committee of the Petrograd Soviet and the Bolsheviks became the largest party in the Petrograd Soviet.
  • Leon Trotsky had been a Menshevik until September, but when he joined the Bolsheviks he soon became Lenin's right hand man.
  • In September and October, when Lenin was in still in hiding in Finland, Trotsky became the leading important Bolshevik in Petrograd.
  • Lenin eventually returned, without his beard, wearing a wig and in disguise. He remained in disguise until after the seizure of power. Nevertheless it was Lenin who forced the Bolsheviks to accept the idea of a seizure of power.
  • On the other hand it was Trotsky who organised the seizure of power and carried it out.
  • He planned the events of 24-25 October, cutting telephone wires, seizing control of the post office, railway stations and other key buildings and isolating the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government met.
  • Trotsky used his position in the Military Committee to move army units loyal to the Provisional Government out of Petrograd and ordered them to defend the city from an advance by the Germans.
  • On 24/25 October the Bolsheviks attacked of the Winter Palace. Kerensky sent repeated messages to the army appealing for help, but only a few hundred assorted troops turned up, including some students, 140 women and forty soldiers who had been crippled by wounds.
  • There were only a few thousand Bolsheviks and it took them two days to win control of the Winter Palace. The Petrograd Garrison could easily have stopped them, but it did not.

Why did the Bolsheviks succeed?
  • No one was interested in saving the Provisional Government. Kerensky had virtually no support in Russia.
  • There were 340,000 troops in the Petrograd garrison who stood idly by and refused to come to Kerensky’s aid.
  • Most of the garrison were raw recruits who did not want to fight. They believed that the Bolsheviks would end the war.

Reality versus Fiction - In 1927 the Communist Party decided that a good way to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution they would produce a feature film about the revolution - simply called "October" the film was a deliberate piece of propaganda to make the Bolsheviks look like heroes of Russia who had overcome a useless Provisional Government, which required the dedication and strength of a huge army to overthrow the regime. In reality the storming of the Winter Palace was a relatively quiet affair. Nevertheless, "October" was a success, under the instructions of the dictator or the Soviet Union, Stalin ordered that the role of Trotsky should be played down in the film, and also to make him look more important, Stalin in effect was rewriting history, something which we will see more about when we're studying the next section on Stalin.

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Imposing Bolshevik control, 1917-21
  • Lenin immediately issued the Peace Decree and the Land Decree. The Peace Decree declared that the war with Germany was over. The Land Decree declared that land belonged to the peasants who farmed it.
  • The general election was held in November and was won by the Socialist-Revolutionaries.
  • In the meantime, Lenin continued to govern Russia and issued a series of decrees. The CHEKA (secret police) was set up in December.
  • When the Constituent Assembly met on 5 January (18 January) 1918, it was crushed by Lenin.
  • He now began to rule as a dictator. All businesses were taken over and at first workers were allowed to elect the managers.
  • The lands and wealth of the Russian Orthodox Church were confiscated.
  • All ranks in the Army were abolished and soldiers were allowed to elect their officers.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
  • Negotiations to end the war began in January. Trotsky was sent by Lenin to do a deal, but was horrified at the German demands. Lenin ordered him to sign in March 1917/
  • At the Treaty, Russia lost 25% of its population, 25% of its iron and wheat and had to pay 300,000,000 gold roubles.
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Why did Lenin accept the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk?
  • He expected a revolution in Germany in which the workers would seize power and the lands would be returned.
  • He expected a civil war and would not be able to fight two enemies at the same time.
  • He believed that Germany would soon be defeated and the land would be recovered.
  • He had to keep his promise to end the war.

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Lenin’s actions led to the outbreak of Civil War in the summer of 1918.
  • The Bolsheviks were surrounded by ‘White’ forces; Kolchak in the east, Denikin in the south and Yudenich in the north-west.
  • The Whites were supported by the Allies: GB, France, the USA and Japan.
  • The Czech Legion, which had been fighting for the Austrians, changed sides and supported the Whites.
  • Poles, Ukrainians, Tartars and many nationalities joined in to win freedom from Russian control.
  • At first the Whites were very successful and the Bolsheviks (Reds) were forced back.
  • In 1919, the tide turned when Trotsky took over the Red Army and Lenin imposed War Communism.

A cartoon published in 1919. The figures at the back represent foreign governments (The USA, France and Britain) and the dogs represent the White Russian generals.

Questions to consider with this source - Do you think this cartoon was published by the Bolsheviks or their opponents? And what is the message of the cartoon? One of the key issues for you to always consider with this sort of image is whether or not one group is being portrayed in a positive or a negative light, if it's negative then it is likely to be the opposition being unkind. So although it may be obvious that this is a Bolshevik poster you'd need to be able to say how you can prove it. Capitalists are always shown by Communists as being fat - the sign of greed in their eyes, the image of Uncle Sam (the U.S.) as a fat evil looking man proves that this is a Communist way of making the opposition look bad in an attempt to make ordinary Russians dislike the Whites and therefore support the Reds in this war.

This video (The Russian Revolution in Colour) goes into a lot of detail about the "how's" and "what's" of the two revolutions of 1917. This is in more detail than you need for your GCSE studies, however it is a good way to ensure that you understand what happened, well worth watching.

Red Recruitment Posterexternal image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSsc9FlxiY6Pr0lwyCK0GbBHW-LEjtIOqRzEPFTXUNQaI28-y2KPA external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRS106QjCx6Y-KN-3fjekVrwJPulT1SwcrNBiScwFvNTOBH8pWWcQWhite Recruitment Poster
Why did the Bolsheviks (the Reds) win the Civil War?
  • Their opponents, the Whites, were divided and never worked together. They were fighting for different purposes.
  • Some wanted to restore the Tsar, Ukrainians wanted independence, army officers wanted to continue the war against Germany.
  • The total forces of the Whites numbered about 250,000. The Red Army eventually had 2,000,000 men.
  • The Bolsheviks controlled the centre and the railway network. They had most of the industry. They were able to keep the Red Army supplied much more effectively.
  • Trotsky recruited many officers from the Imperial Russian Army and made them join the Red Army. These provided the organisation and discipline that the Red Army needed.
  • Each unit had a Commissar, who reported to the Bolshevik Party, in case the officers did not obey orders. The Red Army was, therefore, better trained and better supplied.
  • At first the western Allies sent men and aid to the Whites, but this was never sufficient to turn events their way and the Allies pulled out in 1919.
  • The Whites were often more brutal than the Bolsheviks. To most Russians the Reds were a slightly better bet.
  • Trotsky was a good organiser and travelled around the battlefields urging the Red forces to fight. He had a war train to take him from front to front. Most of the fighting took place along railway lines.
  • Lenin introduced War Communism in 1918 to take supplies from the peasants and give them to the Army. The army took priority for all industrial production.

A Bolshevik poster published in 1919. The slogan says ‘Shoulder to shoulder in defence of Petrograd’.

Question to consider - Why would the Bolsheviks have published a poster like this in 1919? Don't forget to think about who their audience is and how they have depicted the various people in the image. Remember they are Bolsheviks and they beleve in Marxism (Communism) which is all about equality.

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LEON TROTSKY - How important was Trotsky to the success of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War?

Creating a new society

What was War Communism?
  • The Bolsheviks attempted to abolish all private trading, put control of all distribution and labour in the hands of the state, nationalise all large scale industry and replace money with a form of rationing controlled by the state.
  • In May 1918 Lenin introduced the grain monopoly; this stated that all surplus grain would now become the property of the state.
  • Food brigades were set up that roamed the countryside terrorising villages and searching for hoards of food. Anyone suspected of concealing food could be shot on sight.
  • In November 1917 the Decree on Workers' Control had allowed committees of workers to run factories; this led to chaos.
  • From the spring of 1918 the Bolsheviks had begun to appoint managers to run factories. All factories became state property.
  • Whatever was produced was taken by the state and the workers were given rations in return.
  • Workers were also controlled by being prevented from moving from one job to another without approval
  • War Communism was imposed by the CHEKA through the Red Terror. At least 50,000 Russians were murdered in the years from 1918 to 1921.
  • The Tsar and his family were short on 18 July 1918, to prevent them being recaptured by the Whites.

What were the effects of War Communism?
  • The most serious result was a major famine in which 5,000,000 people died. This was brought on as peasants refused to hand over food and simply destroyed it instead.
  • Many tried to evade state control by bringing food into the big cities and selling in. Patrols were put on railway stations to try to catch these 'bagmen' as they were called.
  • In some provinces, particularly Tambov, there were uprisings against the Bolsheviks.
  • More and more resources had to be diverted to keeping order, when they would have been better used fighting the Civil War.
  • The Kronstadt Rebellion was the final straw that convinced Lenin that the system was not working.

The execution of Charles I, 1649
The execution of Charles I, 1649
By having Tsar Nicholas and his entire immediate family murdered, there was no possibility of the Whites re-instating the monarchy in Russia. So many of the White supporters had nothing left to fight for, half the war was therefore won. But when considering what happend to the Romanovs, the question should also be asked: Can the murder of a whole family, including several innocent children and young adults, ever be justified? In England in 1649 when King Charles I was beheaded by Parliament, they abolished the monarchy but allowed the rest of his family to escape to Europe. Eleven years later the monarchy was restored in England and the king killers were all executed. The English Revolution of the 17th century was short lived. If the Reds in Russia had known of this historic example, then perhaps they knew the success of their revolution might lie in the fact that all possibility of the restoration of the Royal Family had to be extinguished. Brutal but secure.
The murder of the Romanovs, 1918
The murder of the Romanovs, 1918

Official statement issued by the Soviet government in Izvestia (1918)

"Lately the approach of the Czechoslovak bands seriously threatened the capital of the Red Urals, Ekaterinburg. In view of this the presidium of the Ural Territorial Soviet decided to shoot Nicholas Romanov, which was done on July 16. The wife and son of Nicholas Romanov were sent to a safe place. The All-Russian Soviet Executive Committee, through its presidium, recognizes as correct the decisions of the Ural Territorial Soviet."

Why would the Soviet Government admit to murdering the Tsar but not the rest of the family?
What sort of message were they trying to send out to the people of Russia?
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What effects did the Civil War have on Russia?
  • There was a massive famine from 1919 to 1921. 5,000,000 people died.
  • The famine was partly brought on by the actions of the Bolsheviks before War Communism.
  • When peasants took over land they were not nearly as interested in producing for the market as big landowners. There was a fall in the amount of food being produced.
  • The situation became much worse during War Communism. Peasants were forced to hand over food supplies and were allowed to keep enough for themselves. Many began to destroy crops and animals rather than hand them over.
  • The power of the Cheka, led by Felix Dzherzhinsky increased dramatically. Altogether about 50,000 people were killed, usually without a trial. The favourite method was to shoot the victim in the back of the neck.

The Kronstadt Mutiny
  • Even when the Civil War ended, the situation did not improve. Eventually there was a mutiny at the naval base of Kronstadt in February 1921. Until then the sailors at Kronstadt had been loyal to the Bolsheviks.
  • Trotsky ordered the Red Army to attack the base and crush the rebellion, but it made Lenin realise that things had gone too far too quickly.

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The New Economic Policy
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  • The New Economic Policy was introduced into Russia in 1921. It marked a reversal of the policy of War Communism that Lenin had begun in 1918.
  • It is now believed that War Communism was in fact an attempt to introduce a fully socialist society, rather than just an attempt to win the Civil War.
  • The New Economic Policy (NEP) signalled the failure of Lenin's plan.
  • Many Bolsheviks saw Lenin as a traitor to Communism as this was Capitalism.

How did the New Economic Policy change Russia?
  • The buying and selling of goods was allowed once more. Soon markets developed and private trade reappeared.
  • People were allowed to own small businesses with up to 25 employees. This encouraged private enterprise, especially in agriculture. This led to the emergence of the Kulaks and NEPmen.
  • People were allowed to make a profit and then pay taxes, instead of having goods confiscated by the state.
  • 1921 to 1928 the Russian economy began to recover, food production rose.

Why did Lenin introduce the NEP?
  • The period from 1913 to 1921 saw a collapse of the Russian economy.
  • The collapse was brought about by the effects of seven years of warfare, first of all against the Germans and then during the Civil War. There had been widespread destruction in European Russia in particular.
  • During the Civil war both sides had destroyed factories and farms to prevent them falling into enemy hands.
  • War Communism had brought about a severe famine. 5,000,000 people had died in the years 1918 to 1920, when peasants all over Russia either refused to hand over food supplies or destroyed them.
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  • In 1920, there was a series of local rebellions sparked off by seizures of food. The most serious was that in Tambov Province, which began in August 1920 and lasted for nearly a year. The rebels destroyed bridges and roads and fought a guerrilla war against the Red Army.
  • In February 1921, sailors in the naval base at Kronstadt rebelled and had to be crushed by the Red Army led by Trotsky.
  • This was even more significant for Lenin as the Kronstadt sailors had played a key role in the events of 1917 and had been loyal supporters of the Bolsheviks.
  • The NEP lasted for seven years until 1928. It was then destroyed by Stalin's Five Year Plans.

Was Lenin right to go against his own beliefs and Communist values, in order to kick start the Russian Economy - even though it went against everything he had fought for his entire life? Could this short term Capitalistic venture ever be justified in the eyes of the average Communist?

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Lenin, Engels, Marx - The theorists behind Communism and the man who made it happen for the first time
Lenin, Engels, Marx - The theorists behind Communism and the man who made it happen for the first time

Communism as an ideology is one that is popular with many university students, some would argue that the roots of communism lie in need and poverty, which is why students are a fan of it in general. However, many left wing students move their beliefs and ideals towards the centre or even to the right as they grow older, get jobs and start to make money, a time when they have to start looking after their family and less about their friends. One's own personal politics becomes ones outlook on life. These idealistic visions of people sharing was first written down in modern times by the likes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their Communist Manifesto in 1848. As academics they believed that it would be a natural stage in human social evolution for the workers to overthrow the middle and upper classes and then to eventually abolish money. Where they were trying to predict human societies of the future, Lenin took their ideas as a blueprint for a new society. Unfortunately whilst in theory Communism (or Marxism / Bolshevism to give but a few of its many names) is viewed in a different way byt different people who want to interpret it. The Bolshevik version decided to force people to accept Communism and considered it to be Democratic,whilst here in Britain we might find the notion of Democracy to be a society where everyone has a voice and a vote, there is freedom of the press, speech and worship. However the Communist interpretation is that our Democracy is wrong and that their democracy in Communism is correct - even though they don't have the freedom of speech, the press or worship, everyone is equal and therefore that is more fair than a Capitalist version of Democracy. At the end of the day you are free to choose which form of democracy you like best, but remember that there aren't simply two versions, there are many all scattered along a political spectrum, and the chances are that as you experience new things in life, your political outlook will develop, sometimes for the best, sometimes not. In my understanding of history, it seems that people only opt for political extremes or radicalism when times are tough. This will normally involve high prices, little food and few options. In this situation, regular moderate politics no longer works for the people and so the people look for an alternative. The classic examples are of course Russia in 1917, Germany in 1933, China in 1949, Cuba in 1959 and even more recent examples such as Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia and Syria, though these last examples are more of societies replacing extreme politics for moderate or possibly a swing towards the left, though only time, and history will answer this question for us. A further point for consideration is that Marx and Engels theories were nothing new, in the 1640s during the time of the English Revolution, radical political and religious groups were setting themselves up, these include the Levellers and the Diggers. The English Parliament was so scared of these small groups that they were forced off their communal land and in some cases imprisoned or executed - and all for wanting some basic human rights. You decide for yourself where you are on the political spectrum by answering the questions on

In addition if you would like to know more about the workings of Marxism/Communism/Bolshevism, why not read the Communist Manifesto? It's not all that long and will fill in the gaps that you might have about this ideology.

Mark Steel Lectures - BBC Radio Production - a humourous way to look at the Russian Revolutions - but no less historically accurate!

This link to the History Today website has a few areas of interest that will give those of you needing a little more, exactly what you need.

Electronic Copies of the differentiated workbooklets for this section.