The Day that Turned Russia Red

In the second part of the story of Vladimir Lenin taking down, we learn how his fanaticism ignited the coup and later the Red Terror.
The Day that Turned Russia Red
Anti-Bolshevik poster, in which Lenin is depicted in a red robe aiding other Bolsheviks in sacrificing Russia to a statue of Marx, circa 1918–1919. (Public Domain)
Walker Larson
11/24/2023
Updated:
11/24/2023
0:00
At 10:00 p.m., on the blustery night of Nov. 6, 1917, two ragged figures made their way through the barren streets of Petrograd, and with them went the doom of Russia. One of the men wore a wig and had a handkerchief tied around his face, allegedly to allay the pain of a toothache. Both men wore ragged workers’ cloaks and caps, flapping in the frigid wind, but they were not workers.

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.

"1917: Red Banners White Mangle" by Warren H. Carroll.
"1917: Red Banners White Mangle" by Warren H. Carroll.

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.

Eino Rahja. (Public Domain)
Eino Rahja. (Public Domain)
Except they weren’t drunkards. They were revolutionaries. And Rahja’s companion, the man with the wig and the fake toothache, was Vladimir Lenin, the architect of the downfall of Russia. And this was to be the hour of his triumph.

A Fanatic’s Insistence

The 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.”
Leon Trotsky, 1933. (<span class="mw-mmv-author"><a class="new" title="User:LeonidasTheodoropoulos (page does not exist)" href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:LeonidasTheodoropoulos&action=edit&redlink=1">Leonidas Theodoropoulos</a></span> /<a class="mw-mmv-license" href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0" target="_blank" rel="noopener">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>)
Leon Trotsky, 1933. (Leonidas Theodoropoulos /CC BY-SA 4.0)
Once in Russia, Lenin was joined by another formidable revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, who had been living in New York until news of the tsar’s abdication reached him. Lenin and his team quickly got to work. “If ever one man, alone, made a world-historic revolution, that man was Lenin,” Caroll writes in “The Crisis of Christendom: 1815-2005.” Lenin was remarkable for his dominating personality and fanatical focus on his goals. He used this intense focus to begin the work of destabilization. As historian Ted Widmer informs us in “Lenin and the Russian Spark,” a German diplomat wrote a message to a colleague that read, “Lenin’s entry into Russia successful. He is working exactly as we would wish.”

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.

Lenin speaking to a crowd, 1919. (Public Domain)
Lenin speaking to a crowd, 1919. (Public Domain)
Lenin, demonstrated this will at the meeting of Oct. 23, at which he insisted on immediate revolution. Most of his companions, including Trotsky, believed they should wait and first call a congress of Soviets (councils) to proclaim the overthrow of the existing government. But the force of Lenin’s personality carried the day. “Delay is death,” he kept repeating. According to Caroll, a harsh, shouted, two-hour speech by Lenin at a subsequent meeting confirmed the decision of the first meeting: The revolution would start immediately.

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.

Red guard unit of the Vulkan factory in 1917. (Public Domain)
Red guard unit of the Vulkan factory in 1917. (Public Domain)

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.

Kerensky’s faltering government did not take adequate measures to deal with the rumblings of the Bolshevik revolution. They had heard these tremors of the coming earthquake, heard the whispers in the streets, but they delayed a serious response. Finally, during the early morning of Nov. 6, they took action by shutting down the Bolshevik presses, ordering the raising of bridges over the river Neva, calling for troops from the front lines of the war, and assembling a ragtag band of defenders for the Winter Palace, the symbol of government power. It was far too little, far too late.

The Coup

In 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.
Lenin speaking to a crowd in Moscow's Sverdlov Square with Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev beside him, May 1920. (Public Domain)
Lenin speaking to a crowd in Moscow's Sverdlov Square with Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev beside him, May 1920. (Public Domain)

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.”

On the morning of Nov. 7, Lenin wrote a proclamation of victory “To the Citizens of Russia.” By the following evening, the Bolshevik Red Guards had taken control of all the key infrastructure in the city, including railway stations, communications systems, and government buildings.
Lavr Georgievich Kornilov, 1916. (Public Domain)
Lavr Georgievich Kornilov, 1916. (Public Domain)
Why didn’t they face more resistance? Even before the coup, the Russian military was already in disarray and furious with Kerensky for his previous betrayal of a beloved general, Lavr Kornilov. It seems that in the days leading up to the coup, Kerensky was overconfident and exaggerated the loyalty of the military. When the fateful hour came, and he tried to rally his men against the Bolsheviks, the troops who hadn’t already sided with the enemy simply refused to fight for him.

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.”

Kerensky speaking to his troops, 1919. (Public Domain)
Kerensky speaking to his troops, 1919. (Public Domain)

The Avalanche Begins

An 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.
Lenin read that decree to the Congress of Soviets to booming applause, like the sound of a distant avalanche. And it was an avalanche. The avalanche of totalitarian communism had come to sweep over Russia and much of the rest of the world. The communist regime was officially established on that day: Trotsky was commissar for Foreign Affairs, Stalin was commissar for Affairs of Nationalities, and Lenin was president.
The following year, Lenin was shot as he concluded a visit to a factory. The deed was blamed on Fanny Kaplan, and she was arrested and executed by the infamous Cheka, the Communist secret police.
But Lenin survived this encounter with death. The reaper hadn’t come for him, yet. And as he recovered from his wounds, he gave the following command to one of his agents: “It is necessary secretly–and urgently–to prepare the terror.”
"Lenin in Front of the Smolny Institute" by Isaak Brodsky. (Public Domain)
"Lenin in Front of the Smolny Institute" by Isaak Brodsky. (Public Domain)

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.

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Walker Larson teaches literature at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, “TheHazelnut.” He is also the author of two novels, "Hologram" and "Song of Spheres."