Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Hundred Years Ago: An "October" Revolution?

Meet the New Boss.
"To the citizens of Russia. The Provisional Government has been deposed.

"State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which heads the Petrograd proletariat and garrison.

"The cause for which the people have fought—namely, the immediate offer of a democratic peace, workers' control over production, and the establishment of Soviet power—has been secured.

"Long live the revolution of soldiers, workers, and peasants!"

(V. I. Lenin, November 7, 1917)

So declared a 47 year old recently returned expatriate during an important meeting of representatives of the revolutionary "unions" ("soviets") that were buttressing Russia's "provisional government" that had overthrown the Tsar back in March, a hundred years ago.

The statement that would shape the myth of "the October Revolution" for generations after, however, was something of a myth even as Lenin said it at around 3:00 in the afternoon on that famous day. Ministers of the provisional government remained holed up at the Winter Palace, which was not taken by Lenin's comrades until early the following morning.

The coup that would mark the official entry of Communism into political powera power that would be wielded despotically and murderously over millions of people within a generationwas still in progress. Nevertheless, Lenin calculated that a statement was necessary in order to seize the moment. He wasn't very picky about things like telling the truth.

In fact, it would take days, weeks, even months to consolidate this bold power grab, and then several years of bloody civil war to make it stick. But eventually Communism would have its Red October, even after Russia's adoption of the Western calendar changed the anniversary date from October 25 (the Julian calendar in use at the time) to November 7 (the date on the Gregorian calendar).

If you were English speaking (or reading) a hundred years ago, no one would have expected you to realize that on the morning of November 8, 1917 history was being made. Suppose you were in London: you would have picked up your copy of The Times or The Daily Telegraph, sipped your tea, and wondered how things were going with the War, what the Irish were up to, or who was going to perform at the Royal Albert Hall the coming weekend.

Except for the last of these, you wouldn't have found much information on the "front page." The newspaper, which was the main form (indeed the only form) of daily media distraction back then, was a blizzard of printed information:

Ten pages for a penny. Full of print. The meaty news of the doings on the continent was on page five:

Oh my, did we have lots going on in the Fall of 1917! This is a grisly page.

Italy was taking a beating from the Germans on its front (columns 1 and 7 are indicating that the Battle of Caporetto was in full swing). The British were making their move in Palestine (this would have been Ottoman territory—the borders of today's Middle East would be carved out from the defeated Turkish Empire after this war). Thus we see the middle column (i.e. column 4).

Meanwhile, column 2 points to the final days of the three month long British and Canadian offensive in Flanders, known to history as the Battle of Passchendaele. At the cost of some half a million casualties, the Western front got pushed back about five miles. Yes, it was more of the usual insanity, but Germany was bleeding faster at this stage of the war, and the Allies were trying to make the most of the sheer attrition factor.

Germany needed a break.

You couldn't be blamed for not realizing that the news in column 5 was the beginning of a big break for the Kaiser and his legions. Few people imagined that it was destined to have so much significance for the future. The headline says "Extremist Rising in Petrograd. State Buildings Seized" (I have added the red highlighter here, for people a hundred years later, to make sure it stands out from all the small print).

But to continue our imaginative supposition: by now you, the English newspaper reader of 1917, would have been used to hearing all sorts of crazy news from Russia since the downfall of the Tsar. How was anyone supposed to keep track of who was in charge and who was rioting? The only thing that seemed to matter was that Russia was still in the war, tying down 50 divisions of Germans (several hundred thousand men) in the East.

Mr. Lenin, however, had a plan to get your attention. Recall the line in his statement about "the immediate offer of a democratic peace." Germany had put Lenin on a train from Switzerland to Russia in April, probably thinking he was mad as a hatter but willing to take him up on his promises to stir up trouble.

Looks pretty "Maximal" to me.
Ultimately they got a lot more trouble than they bargained for, but in November 1917 it was looking like a great deal for the Germans. Being a good Brit, of course, you might have been perplexed by all of this as you chewed your biscuit and read about this faction that called itself the "Maximalists" (or at least this was the translation your paper used for the word Bolsheviks at the time).

On November 8, it wasn't even clear to the London press what the outcome of the "Extremist Rising" was going to be. Though Lenin had already declared the provisional government "deposed," the English press wasn't convinced yet. They may not have even been aware of his brash declaration.

Nevertheless, the special correspondent for the Telegraph had what would prove to be a frightfully accurate awareness of what Lenin and his Bolsheviks represented in those early days of the Communist Revolution. In retrospect, a lot of the horrors of the twentieth century are predicted in his words, not only for Russia but for every place where Communism took hold.

It's worth the effort of squinting a bit to read these paragraphs now, a hundred years later: