The two men were bound for the Smolny Institute, once an educational institution for young women of the nobility, now the headquarters for the revolutionary Bolshevik party, the central hub from which their tentacles reached out into the city and from which they planned to execute their coup. It was a fitting transformation for this venerable old building, symbolic of the fate of Russia as a whole, for the old aristocratic and noble order was about to be obliterated in fire and blood and replaced with the first communist state the world had ever seen.
As historian Warren Carroll relates in “1917: Red Banners, White Mantle,” the two men successfully crossed the Neva River while a guard’s attention was diverted. But their next obstacle was not so easily overcome: Two guards on horseback halted the travelers and demanded to see their passes. They had no passes.
One of the two travelers, a young Finn named Eino Rahja, thinking quickly, pretended to be drunk. In the end, the guards decided they didn’t want to bother with scum like that, a pair of low-life drunkards, and they let them pass.
A Fanatic’s InsistenceThe idea of the coup had been Lenin’s, though he didn’t personally play a role in it prior to that nighttime walk on Nov. 6. Aided by German logistics and funding—including a sealed train and money to organize his party and set up a press—Lenin had been sent back into Russia from exile earlier in 1917 in order to destabilize the country from the inside. This, the Germans hoped, would lead to Russia’s surrender, bringing Germany one step closer to final victory in “The Great War.”
From his hiding place in an agronomy student’s apartment, Lenin wrote an article on how to conduct a revolution. Carroll quotes a key line from it: “The success of both the Russian and the world revolution depends upon two or three days of struggle.” Those days were coming.
The Bolshevik Central Committee held a secret meeting on Oct. 23, 1917, to determine their course of action. The Bolsheviks were not the only socialist party in Russia at the time. They faced many enemies, including from other socialists who wished to use other methods, and overall, they had poor odds of success. But their rise to power came through organization, foreign funding, a fair bit of luck, and sheer determination, best embodied by Lenin’s iron will.
Trotsky took charge of the logistical planning of the uprising. According to “The Crisis of Christendom,” he visited barracks and factories, delivering moving speeches and meeting the soldiers and workers in person. He sought and gained their loyalty. He was building up a base of support, the manpower needed for the coup. He set up the “Military Revolutionary Committee” and with its authority, began arming the Bolshevik Red Guards.
The Bolsheviks were taking advantage of an existing state of chaos within Russia. Tsar Nicholas II had already long ago abdicated as a result of the increasing unrest within the country. The unrest grew out of despair over Russia’s defeats in World War I, desperation over food and fuel shortages, and distrust of the royal family, which had come under the undue influence of the diabolical figure Rasputin.
The towering and time-enshrined structure of tsarist Russia—which had endured the batterings of centuries and had united this far-flung country for age upon age— shivered, shattered, and collapsed. After the abdication, a provisional government was set up under the “moderate” socialist Alexander Kerensky, and it was this provisional government that the Bolsheviks now planned to overthrow in November of 1917.
The CoupIn response, the Bolshevik troops began to take key strategic positions within the city. Barricades were built and machine gun emplacements made. As the day wore on, marching toward the abyss of fate, Lenin sent a message from his hiding place to the Party leaders at the Smolny Institute: “Everything now hangs by a thread. The matter must be decided without fail this very evening” (quoted in “The Crisis of Christendom”). But his message received no reply. Lenin agonized over the thought that his glorious revolution, which he had dreamt of his entire life, might slip from his grasp just at the moment of its fulfillment.
This spurred him out into the dark city on that night, wearing his wig and the handkerchief to cover his face, with only Rahja for a companion. He would go to Smolny and direct the final charge to victory himself.
Lenin made it past the mounted guards and arrived at the Institute, and from that point on, the coup was fully and irreversibly underway. Robert V. Daniels writes in “Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917,” “If the operations of the MRC [Military Revolutionary Committee] ... are carefully followed, it is apparent that a marked change in tone and direction occurred after midnight [Lenin’s arrival]. A new spirit of bold and systematic attack appeared, exemplified in orders to military units to seize outright the public institutions that were not yet under the control of the MRC. … Lenin, apparently, provided the catalyst.”
Only the Winter Palace remained to the Provisional Government by the end of Nov. 7. It fell at 2 a.m. on Nov. 8 in a surprisingly bloodless battle. Kerensky had already fled, and the “last stand” of his bedraggled and crumbling government was profoundly underwhelming. As Caroll writes in “1917,” “A handful of the revolutionaries were killed. So far as any historian has been able to determine, not a single man in Petrograd died to save Holy Mother Russia from capture by the supreme political evil of the age, the sworn enemy of God and dehumanizer of men.”
The Avalanche BeginsAn hour and a half later, the Party leaders finally convinced Lenin to leave Smolny and go rest. But he didn’t sleep. Instead, he spent the remaining hours before dawn writing his decree for the nationalization of all land in the country. By morning, private ownership of land in Russia was over.
So began the “Red Terror,” a campaign of brutal suppression and a foreshadowing of the even more horrific “purges” of Stalin. It was the environment of fear, persecution, gulags, and mass executions that would come to characterize the Communist era. Marxism-Leninism initiated a wave of violence and cruelty that has killed some 100 million people, by some estimates.
That is Lenin’s legacy and the legacy of Nov. 7, 1917, the day that turned Russia red.