1917: The Overthrow of Tsardom  by Andrew Rothstein  Part I. The Gathering of the Storm Article originally published in Marxism Today, June 1967, pp 168-176

1. Illusion and Reality

On the morning of 16 March 1917, a notice was put up in the Junior Common Room of my college (I had just come up with a scholarship) by an Irish Nationalist aristocrat, calling an urgent meeting “to consider the cataclysm”. This was not wholly undergraduate extravagance; it well reflected the utter astonishment of the British people at the shouting headlines in the newspapers that day – “Successful Russian Revolution”, “Abdication of Tsar” and (a reassuring touch in The Times) “A ‘Win-the-War’ Movement”. Such was the first intimation that the press stories, ever since August 1914, about the Russians being heart-and-soul behind their Little Father, with all political differences set aside in the cause of defeating the enemy, were poppycock, to put it mildly.

But they were what the Establishment had wanted the people to believe. When the Tsar replaced one set of reactionary Ministers by another, after major defeats of the Russian Army in the early summer of 1915, this was “indicative of a remarkable change in Russian political life”, wrote the Annual Register, then as now the distilled essence of British reaction. Although there had been much discontent at the high price of food, it wrote in 1916, “the large majority of the Russian nation were heartily in favour of the war, and were prepared to make great sacrifices in order to prosecute the campaign to a victorious conclusion.” Now its authors were faced with the dismal prospect of having to write (in the 1917 Register) that “Tsardom passed out of existence amid a chorus of execration.”

The hard-headed world of the City found itself in no better case. After describing, in July 1914, the revolutionary feeling prevalent in Russia, the Economist by 17 October was announcing, in the words of its Petrograd correspondent: “Russia is solid for the war.” The establishment of War Industry Committees, under pressure from the Russian capitalists, meant that “representation of the people and the interests concerned are taken into partnership with the bureaucracy and the Tsar” (7 August 1915). After twelve months of criticism of the Tsarist Government’s incapacity and refusal to make reforms, in the Duma, nevertheless the speeches “leave no doubt as to the unanimity of all parties in prosecuting the war” (4 March 1916). Although the Socialists had been fighting the police in the streets of the capital in July 1914, “political differences have been temporarily effaced by the supreme effort of the nation against the common foe …. The whole Russian nation, even the revolutionaries, is fully supporting the war and the Government” (29 July 1916). And, on October 21, 1916 – the day on which a political strike of 45 large factories (67,000 workers) ended in Petrograd, and five days before another, which brought out 180,000 workers, began – the Economist correspondent wrote: “Harm done to the economic life of the country by the war is likely to be less felt in an agricultural country like Russia than elsewhere in Western Europe.”

Idyllic Picture

On the very eve of the great event, Harold Williams – one of the best known British correspondents in Russia – had drawn this idyllic picture:

“The street demonstrations are of an unusually mild character wholly unlike any demonstrations I have ever seen in Russia. Crowds wander about the streets, mostly women and boys with a sprinkling of workmen. Here and there windows are broken, and a few bakers’ shops looted. But on the whole the crowds are remarkably good-tempered …. Occasionally when mobs on the Nevsky get too dense the troops gently disperse them. There is a curious placidity about the whole thing …. The main current of the movement is not revolutionary. There is nothing like a popular uprising. It is simply an unusually insistent demand for a vigorous solution of the food problem.” (Daily Chronicle, 13 March 1917.)

How were the newspapers now to explain the thunderbolt of a revolution in the largest land empire on earth, after all this?

Their reporters did all they could to help out. The revolution really was what The Times had called it: the Russians had overthrown their Emperor because his Government wasn’t doing enough to win the war. The Liberal and Tory newspapers competed with one another in their reassurances. “The one great anxiety that clouded the future of the war is being removed”, wrote Williams. “Henceforth Russia is in heart and soul for the war, and the war only”, the Liberal Russian journalist Michael Farbman assured the readers of the Daily Chronicle, the same day. “Henceforth the full strength of the Russian nation will be engaged on the side of the Allies”, said the leading article of the Daily News. The revolution “will strengthen Russia in the fuller conduct of the war”, echoed the Manchester Guardian. The Times editorial noted “the manifest eagerness of all parties that Russia should continue to wage the war with even greater vigour.” The other Tory press went on in the same way.

Moreover, the last thing people should imagine was that some unruly mob had made the Revolution – “the great unwashed”, as the upper classes in Britain still from time to time described the mass of the workers (who, like the Russians, still had no vote). It was the Duma which had done it – Russia’s unrepresentative Parliament chosen in indirect elections from which nine-tenths of the population of the Empire were excluded, under a system in fact which provided a built-in majority for the tiny landowning class; and with only powers to advise and criticise the Ministers appointed by the Tsar. “Briefly, the garrison of Petrograd has revolted and given its adherence to the Duma” (Daily Chronicle). The revolution was the result of “a collision between the Government and the Duma” (Daily News). “The parliamentary leaders, with the people and the Army at their back, have carried out a coup d’état” (The Times); and so on. In fairness, one must say that one discordant voice was heard that morning and the next, in the Manchester Guardian:

“Reading between the lines, it is apparent that the initiative in the revolutionary movement came from the working classes. They acted, as they have acted before, by means of a general strike, but on this occasion their position was secured because they had the army with them. … The soldiers came in on the popular side, for the most part, without their officers.”

The Working Class

In at any rate the anti-war Socialist weeklies (Labour had no daily paper during the 1914-18 war) there was no hesitation. The British Socialist Party’s Call had repeatedly during previous months, reported workers’ struggles in Russia, food shortages, approach of a crisis. Now (March 22) it ridiculed the assertions that the revolution was due to “the ardent desire of the people to win the war” and that it was born of the united forces of the Duma and the Army:

“The real truth is that the revolution was begun and carried out with the utmost success by the masses of the people themselves against the previous exhortations of the Duma, who had feared nothing so much as a revolution.”

The Independent Labour Party’s Labour Leader, which had the previous week printed their leader Philip Snowden’s survey saying, “The country is seething with unrest … Petrograd is in a state of revolution”, now was more hesitant in defining its attitude, but printed a resolution of a meeting of the Russian Socialist Groups in London, pointing out that “the most active part in the revolution was played by the revolutionary working class.” George Lansbury, in his weekly Herald, wrote that “The feverish anxiety with which the British press strives to prove that everyone in Russia is pro-war is clear evidence to me that it is not so”, and the Editorial Notes quoted the same resolution of the Russian Socialists in London.

Thus, at the very moment of the March Revolution in Russia, two diametrically opposite versions of its origin were launched; and in substance they continue to circulate, fifty years later. Moreover, in capitalist countries, where obscurantist writers can be financed on a large scale, their books subsidised in various ways and publishers assured of a good guaranteed sale to universities, public libraries and those who know no better, the reactionary party has a very considerable advantage. All the more important, therefore, to ascertain which of the two has truth on its side.

2. The Russian Working Class in 1914

In the last months before the First World War the Russian working class was engaged in mounting an ever fiercer struggle – and with the Bolshevik Party more and more recognised, by friend and foe alike, as its chosen leader.

Strikes in Tsarist Russia might start for purely economic demands, but the savage attacks on the strikers by police and troops made them political in spite of themselves. However, these years saw an increasing proportion of strikes with political demands from the very start. In 1912 there were 550,000 political strikers out of a total of 725,000; in the first six months of 1914, out of more than 1,300,000 strikers, over a million struck for political reasons – the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, 22 January 1905 (over a quarter of a million), the suspension of workers’ deputies from the Duma in April (over 100,000), over half a million on May Day. The Annual Register for 1914 itself wrote of the “enormous increase in so-called political strikes, the work of a clandestine organisation which threatened to paralyse trade and industry ….” On 4 July, 90,000 struck in protest at the shooting of over 50 workers by the police at a mass meeting in the great Putilov engineering works and shipyard; by 7 July, 130,000 were on strike in St Petersburg alone (with much fighting with the police, and barricades up in a number of places), over 50,000 struck in Moscow and another 50,000 in Riga, 20,000 in Warsaw, and scores of thousands elsewhere.i This great movement drew in masses of students, particularly on May 1, in the largest cities: as well as sailors of the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets and two Army battalions in Central Asia.

Bolshevik Advance

The Bolshevik Party, in the last two years before the war, moved steadily to leadership of these struggles: the evidence may be briefly summarised here.ii Their daily paper Pravda, started on May 5th, 1912, won big support in the largest factories, far outdistancing the Menshevik paper. In the October 1912 elections to the Duma, the Bolsheviks won all six seats reserved for the workers (in the most industrially advanced provinces). In April 1913, they won a decisive victory over the Mensheviks in the elections to the St Petersburg committee of the Metal Workers’ Union, and two months later a similar victory in the Moscow Printers’ Union. By the summer of 1914 most of the few legal St Petersburg unions and all the local unions existing legally in Moscow had elected Bolshevik leaderships (in spite of constant police persecution) and the same applied to workmen’s clubs and educational societies in the main industrial centres. In March 1914, the Bolsheviks won sensational victories in elections to the newly created insurance committees at St Petersburg, Moscow, Riga, Kharkov, Odessa and other cities.

Well might the Department of Police, in its report to the Minister of the Interior for 1912 and up to April 1913, already write:iii

“The most energetic and lively element in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, the most capable of tireless struggle, resistance and constant organisation is the element (the organisations and the people) concentrated around Lenin. … The Leninist fraction is always better organised than any other, stronger in its single-mindedness, more inventive in carrying its ideas into the workers’ ranks and in adapting itself to the political situation …. Summing up the present state of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, it should be said that of all the revolutionary organisations existing in Russia and abroad, the only one which has not fallen behind the present revival in the workers’ movement, which has managed to pull itself together sufficiently, establish its slogans and its connections, and theoretically and practically keep up with the general animation is the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party.”

And on June 30, 1914, the colonel of gendarmerie in charge of security in St Petersburg reported to the Minister that, in contrast to the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary papers which ran at a constant deficit, the “Leninist fraction’s” Pravda (at that time called Labour Pravda on account of its repeated suppression under other titles) was printing 40,000 copies daily – 50% more than the other two combined – and had managed “finally to establish itself, more than cover its expenses, and does not touch at all its ‘iron fund’, which has now reached a total of over 20,000 roubles.”

This influence and the movement behind it were not blotted out when war broke out. Pravda had been raided and closed down as early as July 8, 1914; in many places the legal organisations in Bolshevik hands were also raided and their officials arrested. But the Bolshevik local committees in a number of others issued tens of thousands of leaflets denouncing the war and the Tsarist Government, and preaching revolution. On the day war was declared (August 1, 1914) 27,000 workers in 21 St Petersburg factories – including some of the largest – struck against the war and demonstrated in the streets. In Moscow there were strikes at the big ‘Three Hills’ textile factory and elsewhere; 10,000 workers were on strike at Baku, 1,500 at the Tver Railway Carriage Works; in the Perm province there were armed conflicts between mobilised workers and the authorities in the course of which dozens of workers were killed or wounded.iv

Outbreak of War

However, this was the vanguard of more politically conscious workers, directly influenced by Pravda, or other Bolshevik literature, or by the Bolshevik groups in their midst. Most workers throughout the Empire – especially the majority engaged in small-scale enterprise in the lesser towns – were for the time being silenced, either by mobilisation or by the warlike propaganda campaign launched by the authorities; while the police made wholesale raids and arrests among those suspected of being members of the “Leninist” organisation. Between August and December 1914, there were only 70 strikes, 8 of them with political aims: of the 37,000 strikers, just over 4,000 put forward political, ie anti-war, demands. The secret police were triumphant. “Thanks to the consistent and systematic liquidation of the most active Party workers”, the Petrograd division reported to the Department of Police on December 11, 1914, there had not been a regular Bolshevik leading committee in the capital since the outbreak of war. Such committees as had been formed were “self-appointed, consisting of chance groupings of old Party workers”(!) and only in a few sections of the city was there “underground Party work in the form of factory groups and unimportant industrial groups” – the most active being in the Vyborg quarter, consisting of especially advanced and class conscious metal workers.

But these exceptions – men and women educated by Pravda and in the Bolshevik factory branches – were just the indestructible element which were inaccessible either to the spies of the police or to their comprehension (as they have been, ever since, to the successors and pupils of the Tsarist police among the historians).

Much has been written, and a good deal known through translation, of Lenin’s immediate branding of the war of 1914 as an imperialist war, and of the firm manifesto of the Bolshevik Central Committee leaders abroad, under his leadership (November 1914). The manifesto denounced the betrayal of the decisions of the International by the Social-Democratic leaders on both sides who were supporting the war, criticised the centrists who refused to break with such supporters, called for a struggle which would turn the imperialist war into a civil war (including the defeat of one’s own government) and demanded the formation of a new revolutionary international, cleared of the opportunists. This became the very backbone of all later Bolshevik activity during the war.

Opposition to the War

What is less known is the fact that, during 3½ months in which the Bolshevik organisations had no contact with their leaders abroad, they went into action, wherever and whenever they could, with essentially the same analysis and conclusions. Denunciations of the war and calls for the overthrow of Tsardom were issued in leaflet form, apart from Petrograd, Moscow and Riga, in Kharkov, Kiev, Yekaterinoslav, Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) and towns in the Urals, Caucasus and elsewhere: 70 leaflets in about 400,000 copies. Party conferences (illegal) were held in several areas.v Moreover, the Bolshevik Duma deputies, after holding a number of meetings with their constituents which adopted anti-war resolutions, induced the Menshevik deputies to join with them on August 8 in a declaration denouncing the war as the work of the ruling classes, and opposing any support of Tsardom; and in walking out when the war credits were put to the vote. The Bolsheviks – not the Mensheviks – followed this up in October by sending a stinging reply, preliminarily discussed by meetings of active Party workers in the main industrial centres, to a telegram from the Belgian pro-war Socialist Vandervelde, appealing to them to support the war “against Prussian Junkerdom”.

The Bolshevik deputies were arrested at the beginning of November (and sentenced in February to exile in a penal settlement for life); but not before the secret police had once again reported: “It must be admitted that in Petrograd the Leninist trend has the dominant influence in views on the war and on the attitude of Social Democrats to the war.” The documents produced by the prosecution at the trial of the Deputies, and the speeches of some of them – reprinted in some of the Petrograd capitalist press – carried these views far and wide.

Thus, however great the losses that had been suffered, and however muffled was the voice of the Bolsheviks for the time being, the most politically active sections of the working class (and of other sections of the working people) had had a plain intimation that there was another way of looking at events than that which was served up to them, in defence of the war, by the united front from the Tsar to most of the Mensheviks.

3. The War and its Miseries

Little by little – but much faster than in the more developed imperialist countries – the Russian people as a whole began to learn the same lesson, to varying degrees and at varying rates according (in the main, and individuals apart) to their class situation.

The Tsarist Government mobilised about four million men immediately, and over ten million more in the next 2½ years. During those years the Russian forces played a major part in the war. In August 1914, two Russian armies invaded East Prussia, only to be almost annihilated the following month. Other Russian armies had inflicted equally heavy defeats on those of Austria-Hungary, and had occupied Eastern Galicia and Bukovina, nearing the Carpathian foothills. In the following months German and Russian armies fought bloody battles in Russian Poland. In November, December and January Russia’s armies in the Caucasus inflicted shattering defeats on Germany’s Turkish ally and invaded Turkey. In these struggles, apart from huge losses in manpower, the Tsarist army almost exhausted its reserve stocks of guns, rifles, machine guns and munitions. Then, after further Russian advances in Galicia, the Germans in May 1915 broke through the Russian front there, and in five months in practically incessant battles drove the Russian army out of most of the Austro-Hungarian territory it had gained, and occupied south-west Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and part of Latvia. There began many months of exhausting trench warfare. In June 1916 a further offensive of the south-western Russian armies against Austro-Hungary once again brought them, at great cost to both sides, back to the Carpathians; while another offensive carried the Caucasus armies deep into the Black Sea regions of Turkey.

These huge encounters had exacted a fearful price. A document of the “Special Committee to Examine and Combine Defence Establishments”, dated November 1916, stated that up till then 5½ million had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner, while 9 million were at the front or in other army units. Apart from those in occupied territory (2 million), physically unfit (5 million) or engaged in industry or on the railways (3 million), there were now left only 1,500,000 fit men available for call-up – out of 26 million men between 18 and 40 who had been capable of bearing arms in July 1914.

The call-up itself had deprived agriculture of 47% of its able-bodied males, and industry of some 40% of its workers. The countryside, in addition, had had 35% of its cattle and 10% of its horses requisitioned or purchased. Agriculture, moreover, was hit by the violent reduction in supply of machines and implements, partly because of the almost total (96%) stoppage of imports (chiefly from Germany before the war), partly through the switching of metal working factories to war production: home output of farm machinery fell by 75%. Output of bread grains fell from an average of 45 million tons in the five pre-war years to 35.5 millions in 1916-17.vi

Economic Breakdown

Transport was also profoundly affected. By the end of 1916 the number of railway engines available had fallen from 20,000 to under 17,000 and of goods trucks from 540,000 to 460,000; in addition, 17% of the engines and nearly 7% of the railway trucks needed urgent repair. This decline was partly due to the great losses sustained during the German advance in the relatively industrialised areas of Poland and the Baltic provinces; but the evacuation of millions of refugees and much property in face of the German advance, and the enormous requirements of the army in moving troops and supplies to the fronts, with the heavy concentration of rolling stock on deliveries of fuel and materials to the war factories (the last two items alone diverted one-third of all engines and trucks), all imposed on the railways a strain which only a fully adequate repair and production industry could relieve. But industry was less and less capable of meeting this need.

Industry had, as a result of the German advance, lost over 20% of its productive capacity in any case; but the transport crisis, which created acute shortages in deliveries of coal and raw material, and at the same time inadequate output of iron and steelvii (in August 1916 monthly war needs were assessed at 300,000 tons, but only 250,000 tons were being delivered) were progressively making matters worse. At the beginning of January 1917, Rodzyanko, the President of the Duma, submitted to the Tsar a long list of factories which had been closed down for lack of fuel.

The worst aspect of this general economic breakdown was a growing crisis in supplies of food and other necessities to the people – mainly because grain which was available could not be moved (as also was the case with kerosene) but also because of the reduction in output of the textile industry, through lack either of raw material or labour. By October 1916 its output was only 80% of prewar – but the lion’s share of that output was reserved for the armed forces. As regards food, the situation in the large cities by the end of 1916 was disastrous.

No more than 3,300 wagon loads of grain were delivered to Moscow in December 1916, as against a standard of 10,200. Petrograd frequently received an even smaller proportion. The army by the spring of 1916 was receiving only one-third of its pre-war meat ration. The authorities realised what this meant. In 1915 the Department of Police registered 684 food riots in European Russia alone; in the first five months of 1916 it recorded 510. In a report to the Minister of the Interior in the second half of that year, it said: “The food breakdown is being combined with the political struggle to threaten Russia with a collapse such as Russian history has never known.”viii

Harsh Conditions

It was not only the shortages which enraged the working class, but the spectacle of frantic profiteering and idle luxury, openly flaunted, by the side of headlong rises in prices which put even the bare necessities beyond the reach of the people. Industry and Trade, the main journal of the business world, spoke in October 1916 of “the threatening exhaustion of the working class”, produced by “the extraordinary increase in the intensity of labour as a result of war conditions, coupled with the complication of the food problem for the wide masses of the people.”ix Indeed, dividends of 20, 30 or 40% became quite common in the war years for shareholders in the largest monopolies – metalworking, oil, sugar, rubber and others. Parallel with these were the astronomic increases in prices. Taking the level in January 1914 as 100, they stood on January 1, 1917, at 400 for cheap calico, 480 for cotton prints, 700 for matches, 905 for footwear. Bread in Moscow cost twice as much in January 1917 as it did three years before; beef was 3-4 times as dear and pork 4-5 times. In the provinces prices had risen still higher.x

But nominal wages had not risen anything like as much; and real wages were no more than 50-60% of what they had been in 1913. Moreover, the average working day was back to nearly 10 hours. Here the evidence of the workers’ enemies is perhaps as convincing as any. In October 1916, the Petrograd secret police reported to the Department of Police that the economic position of the masses was “more than terrible”. While wages had gone up for most workers by only 50% – more than that only for a few categories such as skilled mechanics – food prices were up from 100% to 500%.

“Even if we assume that wages rose by 100%, food prices have gone up on the average by 300%. The impossibility of securing many foodstuffs and prime necessities even for money, the loss of time while standing in queues for commodities, the increased sickness through bad feeding and anti-sanitary housing (cold and damp through lack of coal and wood fuel) and other factors have led to the workers already in their majority being ready for the most savage excesses of hunger riots.”xi

And the French Ambassador, Maurice Paléologue, noted in his diary on 29 September 1916:

“The high cost of living is a cause of general suffering.

As regards the prime necessities, the increase in prices is to three times the pre-war level: it even reaches four times for wood fuel and eggs, five times for butter and soap. The main reasons for this situation are unfortunately as deep-seated as they are evident: the closing of foreign markets, the blocking-up of the railways, the disorder and corruption in the administration.

On October 24 he noted that the food situation was worse:

“The people are suffering from hunger” – and “in the factories leaflets pass from hand to hand, inciting the workers to strike and demand peace.”

A week later Paléologue put down:

“For two days all the factories of Petrograd have been on strike. The workers left the workshops without formulating any reason, on a simple watchword coming from a mysterious committee.”xii

The committee was the Petrograd organisation of the Bolshevik Party.

4. Bolsheviks and Workers in Wartime

By the autumn of 1915, after all the repressions, mass arrests and trials, the Bolsheviks had reconstituted the framework of their underground organisation. While the leadership, in the person of Lenin, Zinoviev and Krupskaya (as secretary) were functioning in Switzerland, Shlyapnikov as Central Committee member had gone secretly to Russia and reconstituted a “Russian Bureau” of the Central Committee, composed of members of the illegal Petersburg Committee (the Bolsheviks kept the old name, as a symbol of their rejection of the jingo manoeuvre which substituted a ‘Slavonic’ name for the ‘Teutonic’ one) and other active workers. This of course was done by co-option: in the course of 1915 arrests necessitated the formation of a second Bureau, and in the Summer of 1916 a third.

The people whom Shlyapnikov brought in had all had their political training in practical underground work, particularly in the factories and the students’ organisations, and most particularly since Pravda had been started. (In the same way – in spite of constant arrests, owing to the penetration of police informers – city committees were incessantly set up and were able to function for a time in Moscow, in April 1915, August 1915, October 1915, February 1916, August 1916, November and December 1916. Much the same was the picture elsewhere. During 1914-15 the Samara (now Kuibyshev) committee had to be reconstituted after police raids at least six times, and in August 1916 a committee was elected at a regional party conference which functioned right up to the March Revolution. Committees went on functioning in Estonia, Latvia and the Caucasus.

In all, committees functioned – with occasional breaks after police raids – in 29 cities of the Russian Empire during the war, publishing leaflets, illegal papers, even occasionally legal printed papers (surviving for a few issues), and conducting constant agitation in the factories, the army and navy, and among the students. About 90 local groups and committees took part in this: they reached 75 towns in all. A total of 600 leaflets, with a print of some two millions, were issued between July 1914 and March 1917.xiii

The most outstanding case – and historically the most decisive – was the Petersburg committee. It had to be reconstituted at least 30 times during the war, and at least 500 of its most active members and local members were arrested. This was apart from the thousand arrested in connection with raids on the 19 illegal printing estabhshments which it set up in the course of those years, and with the distribution of the leaflets produced. But the persistent groundwork done in the previous years, especially by the publication of Pravda as the voice of the workers by hand and brain, had created a vast reserve of support on which the Committee and its supporters could draw. Every possible occasion was taken for issuing leaflets, and holding short meetings in the biggest works.

In April 1917, V Schmidt, speaking at the first All-Russian Party Conference on behalf of the Petersburg Committee then functioning, reported that 90 leaflets with a total print of 300,000 had been issued by the Committee during the war: but this was before any fundamental research was done, and today it is known that at least 160 leaflets were issued in Petrograd during the 32 months of war up to the beginning of March 1917, with a total output of close on 500,000 copies. These leaflets penetrated all over the country, and their origin was no more “mysterious” than their effect. In April 1916 the secret police reported:

“Among the Petrograd Social-Democrats the ‘Bolshevik-Leninists’, with the Petersburg Committee as their leading body, were especially noteworthy for their activity and fighting spirit …. A number of repressive measures adopted by the Security Branch disturbed the plans of the Bolshevik-Leninists, but they invariably restored what had been broken up, as far as possible came together again and refilled the ranks of their leaders.”

At the beginning of January 1917, the police came into possession of the one and only set of minutes of the Petersburg Committee which have been preserved. They showed that there were 11 borough committees, 3 national committees (representing Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian members living in the capital) and 1 student committee in existence and working. The committee discussed an important political question – recent German “peace proposals” – drafts of a leaflet on the subject, arrangements for meetings in the factories and a demonstration, and various matters of organisation.xiv No wonder that, in January 1917, the secret police was once again reporting with regret that

“the leading collective of the Bolshevik Social-Democrats has still remained at large and continued its underground work, with the firm intention of displaying to the Government authorities its vitality and the small effectiveness of the measures of the investigating body.”

And this lament, though uttered in connection with Petrograd, could well have applied to a number of other cities.


In point of fact, this “firm intention” had been demonstrated a number of times during the previous two years, loudly enough to reverberate throughout Russia despite the ruthless censorship. When the Bolshevik Duma deputies were arrested, the Petersburg Committee called for meetings and a one-day protest strike on November 12. Only a few factories struck in Petrograd, but other strikes and meetings took place in Moscow, Kharkov and other cities. 197 students were arrested after a meeting in Petrograd University. When the deputies were put on trial, in February 1915, there were more strikes and student meetings, though still on a small scale (fewer than 5,000 struck in different parts of Russia). Strikes called for the anniversary of the Lena Goldfields shootings (April 17, 1915) were still small, and 35,000 struck on May Day in response to the Bolshevik call.

Then, from April to November 1915, there was a big increase in strikes in many parts of European Russia, mostly for economic reasons, as the various miseries of the war began to make themselves felt. Over 460,000 workers struck. Moreover, whereas wider issues played a small part at first – perhaps 15,000 involved in political strikes (up to June out of 181,000 strikers) – the situation changed abruptly when 100 workers were shot dead on August 10 at Ivanovo-Voznesensk, where a demonstration of 4,000 textile strikers was demanding the release of a group of active Bolsheviks, arrested in connection with the distribution of a Party leaflet. Immediately, political protest strikes broke out in Moscow, Petrograd, Tula, Nijni-Novgorod, Kharkov and other industrial towns – the first on a large scale since the outbreak of war. In August and September, out of nearly 170,000 strikers (260 strikes), over 130,000 took part in 165 political strikes, a number of them provoked by the arrest of 30 Bolshevik workers at the Putilov works. In all, the period from August to November 1915 produced 340 strikes with nearly a quarter of a million participants. The near lull created by the outbreak of war had been broken for good – and this had important consequences.

On September 2, 1915, General Frolov, commanding the Petrograd Military District, issued an order threatening trial of strikers by court-martial, with penal servitude as the punishment: he launched for the first time the charge – later to become familiar – that the strikes were being financed by “German money”. The Petersburg Committee, in a reply manifesto, reminded Frolov of the widely publicised charge that German gold was going to General Staff officers, and that strikers were getting, not gold, but prison, lockouts and hunger: and it called on the soldiers not to be fooled, but to join the working class when it rises for decisive battle with the Tsarist Government and turn their arms “against the real enemies of Russia, the Frolovs, the police, the gendarmes and the whole Tsarist gang”.

‘Workers’ Groups’

It was in this atmosphere that there took place, in September 1915, elections in the factories to ‘Workers’ Groups’ of the War Industry Committees. These committees had been set up in the summer after the heavy defeats of the Tsarist army, to try and bring order out of chaos in the war industry, or, more precisely, as a means of bringing the industrial capitalists into closer association with the Tsarist bureaucracy, now under a cloud. The bourgeoisie in turn had decided that it would be a good idea to bring a number of workers’ representatives into association with them and thus with the war effort; and the opportunist parties – Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries – eagerly seized on this opportunity of supporting the war, under the guise of defending the workers’ interests. But in order to get the workers’ representatives elected, the authorities had to allow mass meetings in the larger factories – though it was provided that the meetings could only choose ‘electors’, and these in turn at city meetings would choose the representatives, a procedure which made easier ‘sifting’ by the police.

The Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks, at the end of August, decided to make use of the mass meetings to get publicity for the Bolshevik attitude on the war, get Bolsheviks elected as ‘electors’ and then that the latter should at the city meetings get those meetings to endorse the Bolshevik attitude. Declarations of policy were drafted for the two occasions. The subsequent proceedings brought out only too clearly, for the authorities’ liking, the tremendous ‘vitality’ of the Bolshevik organisation. At factory after factory, in Petrograd, Bolshevik ‘electors’ were chosen, or the Bolshevik declaration was adopted, or both. 219,000 workers in factories employing 500 workers or over took part in the meetings. When the 198 ‘electors’ assembled on October 10 (10 did not turn up), 60 of them were Bolsheviks, 81 Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries and 57 non-party. But after 13 hours of discussion, the Bolsheviks’ declaration was adopted by 95-81 – proclaiming that “the main enemy of each people is in its own country: the enemy of the Russian people is the Tsarist autocracy, the serf-owner-minded landowners, the imperialist bourgeoisie”, and that the watchword of ‘down with the war’ should be given point by the call: “Hail the social revolution.” For the same reason it would be treachery to the revolutionary internationalist principles of the working class for workers’ representatives to take part in the Central War Industry Committee.

This event resounded like a thunderclap throughout the country. After a public denunciation of “outside interference” in the press by the Menshevik leader Gvozdev, the Government cancelled the elections, arrested a number of ‘electors’ or annulled their mandates, and held a second meeting on December 12, at which the Bolsheviks and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries denounced the proceedings and withdrew, and the Mensheviks got their men elected. But the political effect was tremendous. Thereafter the Government managed to get elections among the workers in only 76 towns out of 244 where War Industry Committees were set up – and only in 58 of these were ‘workers’ groups’ set up. Considering the methods of the Tsarist regime, this was a convincing proof of the leadership of the Bolsheviks among the most decisive sections of the workers.

This was confirmed on several outstanding occasions in 1916. On the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’, 22 January,xv 70,000 workers struck at the call of the Bolsheviks – despite mass preliminary arrests of active Party workers all over the country. That month there took place elections in the factories (those with at least 200 workers) to the provincial insurance committees set up in 1914, and to the Central Insurance Council, to which only Petrograd factories had the right to elect. By January 1916, as a result of arrests, there was not a single workers’ representative left in the Petrograd insurance committee, and only 3 out of 15 in the Central Insurance Council – and 2 of those were Bolsheviks. The Petersburg Committee organised a campaign based on (i) the extension of the social insurance system to the whole working class and on a non-contributory basis, (ii) the expulsion of the “War-Industry Socialists” as traitors to the working class cause. In fact, at the all-Petrograd delegate meeting on January 31 the Bolshevik declaration was adopted and the entire Bolshevik list elected, except for one whose name had been misprinted on the ballot paper. The Petrograd secret police in February reported that this was “a brilliant result for the Bolsheviks, crowning their election campaign and agitation”, and that evidently the Insurance Council would now become “the leader of Party life in the capital”. The activity of the Leninists had “reached its peak”, they said.

Strikes Spread

But, while the strike wave continued to rise in general in 1916 – the number of strikers rose from 557,000 the previous year to 1,038,000, 310,000 of them in political strikes as against 157,000 in 1915 – the peak was yet to come. In October 1916, the food shortage reached unprecedented acuteness, with endless queues for bread, frequent small strikes and fights with the police. The Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks launched a campaign of meetings in the factories to explain the origin of the crisis. On October 25 it brought out a leaflet explaining why the ruling class was carrying on the war, and calling on the working class “to raise its voice”. The response was an impressive one. On 30 October, 7 factories with 20,300 workers stopped; swelling daily, the strike embraced 66,600 by November 1. Moreover, on the first day soldiers of a reserve battalion in a barracks opposite the Renault factory joined the strikers there in stoning the police: and neither they nor Cossacks who had been called out would fire on the workers. The Petersburg Committee called off’ the strike on November 4.

But it was renewed four days later, when 19 sailors charged with membership of a Bolshevik organisation, and a number of soldiers arrested for their part in the strikes on October 30, were due for court-martial. The Petersburg Committee issued a leaflet calling on the workers to “stretch out the hand of fraternal aid to our comrades in the army”, and to start a three-day strike on November 8. By 10 November 120,000 workers at 50 large works, and 10,000 in smaller factories were on strike. When the military authorities and the factory-owners ordered the closure of a number of factories, and the dismissal of the strikers, as a reprisal, the answer of the Petersburg Committee was to call for a general strike in Petrograd. By 14 November 180,000 were on strike. The lockout was called off the previous day, and the strike ended.

Bolsheviks in the Fleet and Army

This was the real peak of the workers’ struggle in 1916. It showed that they had begun to understand very clearly the political origin of the miseries the war had brought them: that the decisive factories, where the biggest mass of workers were concentrated, had begun to follow the Bolsheviks, and that the understanding had begun to reach the armed forces. It was just during the last stages, on November 5, that Maurice Paléologue recorded a conversation with “a General in daily contact with the Petrograd garrison”, who told him that the latter now numbered at least 170,000 men. The Ambassador asked him if it was true that these troops were “gravely contaminated by revolutionary propaganda”. The general answered “in the affirmative”.xvi And this was not idle talk. The Department of Police had a wide intelligence network in the armed forces, and reported in the summer of 1916 that the revolutionary leaflets of the Petersburg Committee were reaching the army and navy on active service “in considerable quantity”. In fact the Petersburg Committee had set up a services organisation which had contacts with Party groups in companies and regiments at Kronstadt, Reval and half a dozen other garrison towns. In the Baltic Fleet nearly every warship had its Bolshevik group, and there was a ‘Chief Ships’ Committee’ at their head. There were some 30 Party groups in units on the Western Front. There were many protest demonstrations among the armed forces in 1915 and 1916, both against bad conditions and in solidarity with the workers on strike. Here again the movement went far beyond the limits of direct contact with Bolshevik organisations – as when numerous units refused to go into battle, or when thousands of soldiers revolted at their depots (Kremenchug, Zhmerinka, Gomel and elsewhere).

To complete the picture: neither to ‘Bolshevik plotting’ (apart from one Bolshevik in one area) nor to ‘German gold’ could be attributed the giant national rising of the peoples of Central Asia in the second half of 1916 – against the attempt of the Tsarist Government to ‘requisition’ 400,000 Kazakhs and 200,000 Uzbeks between 18 and 43 for labour service with the army. The struggle lasted for four months, involving tens of thousands of armed peasants.

Such was the picture of the Russian people “heart and soul for the war”, and of the “collision between the Government and the Duma”, on the eve of the events which led to the overthrow of Tsardom.

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