How Did the Bolsheviks Come to Power? | History Hit

How Did the Bolsheviks Come to Power?

HISTORYHIT.TV A new online only channel for history lovers
Boris Kustodiev's painting entitled 'The Bolshevik'
Image Credit: Public Domain

On 11 August 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labour party met for their Second Party Congress. Held in a chapel on Tottenham Court Road in London, the members took a vote.

The result split the party into two factions: the Mensheviks (from menshinstvo – Russian for ‘minority’) and the Bolsheviks (from bolshinstvo – meaning ‘majority’). The split in the party came down to differing views on party membership and ideology. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Vladimir Lenin) led the Bolsheviks: he wanted the Party to be a vanguard of those committed to a proletariat-based revolution.

Lenin’s involvement and ideology gained the Bolsheviks some favour, and their aggressive stance towards the bourgeoisie appealed to younger members. In reality though, the Bolsheviks were a minority – and would not change this until 1922.

Lenin on his return from exile in Siberia

Bloody Sunday

Things changed in Russia on Sunday 22 January 1905. In a peaceful protest led by a priest in St Petersburg against terrible working conditions, unarmed demonstrators were fired upon by the Tsar’s troops. 200 were killed and 800 wounded. The Tsar would never fully regain the trust of his people.

Riding on the subsequent wave of popular anger, the Social Revolutionary Party became the leading political party who established the October Manifesto later that year.

Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to take violent action, but the Mensheviks rejected these demands, as it was deemed against Marxist ideals. In 1906, the Bolsheviks had 13,000 members, the Mensheviks had 18,000. No action was taken.

In the early 1910s, the Bolsheviks remained the minority group in the party. Lenin was exiled in Europe and they had boycotted the Duma elections, meaning there was no political foothold to campaign or gain support.

Furthermore, there wasn’t a great demand for revolutionary politics. The Tsar’s moderate reforms discouraged support for extremists, meaning the years between 1906 and 1914 were ones of relative peace. When the First World War kicked off in 1914, rallying cries for national unity put the Bolsheviks’ demands for reform on the back foot.

The outbreak of war

The political situation in Russia at the beginning of the war was appeased due to the rallying cry of national unity. Hence, the Bolsheviks faded to the background of politics.

However, this changed after numerous crushing defeats of the Russian army. By the end of 1916, Russia had suffered 5.3 million deaths, desertions, missing persons and soldiers taken prisoner. Tsar Nicholas II left for the Front in 1915, making him a figure of blame for the military disasters.

As Nicholas struggled with the war effort on the Front, he left his wife, the Tsarina Alexandria – and by extension, her trusted advisor Rasputin – in charge of home affairs. This proved disastrous. Alexandria was unpopular, easily swayed and lacked tact and practicality. Non-military factories were being closed down, rations were introduced; the cost of living rose by 300%.

These were the perfect pre-conditions for a proletariat-based revolution.

British historian Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore joins Dan to chat about this Russian royal family.
Listen Now

Missed opportunities and limited progress

With the nationwide discontent accumulating, Bolshevik membership also rose. The Bolsheviks had always campaigned against the war, and this was becoming paramount for many people.

Yet, they only had 24,000 members and many Russians had not even heard of them. The majority of the Russian army were peasants, who sympathised more with the Socialist Revolutionaries.

On 24 February 1917, 200,000 workers took to the streets of Petrograd on strike for better conditions and food. The February Revolution was a perfect opportunity for the Bolsheviks to secure a foothold in gaining power, but they could not initiate any action and rather were swept along in the tide of events.

By 2 March 1917, Nicholas II had abdicated and the ‘Dual Power’ were in control. This was a government made from the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

Post-war

The Bolsheviks had missed their chance to gain power and were vehemently against the Dual Power system – they believed it betrayed the proletariat and satisfied bourgeoisie problems (the Provisional government was made up of twelve Duma representatives; all middle class politicians).

The summer of 1917 finally saw some significant growth in Bolshevik membership, as they gained 240,000 members. But these numbers paled in comparison to the Socialist Revolutionary Party, who had one million members.

Another chance to gain support came in the ‘July Days’. On 4 July 1917, 20,000 armed-Bolsheviks attempted to storm Petrograd, in response to an order of the Dual Power. Ultimately, the Bolsheviks dispersed and the attempted uprising collapsed.

Dan Snow introduces four projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council over the last four years, highlighing underexplored aspects of First World War history, from German wartime photography to miltary training in Northern Ireland.
Watch Now

October Revolution

Finally, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power.

The October Revolution (also referred to as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Bolshevik Coup and Red October), saw the Bolsheviks seize and occupy government buildings and the Winter Palace.

However, there was a disregard for this Bolshevik government. The rest of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets refused to acknowledge its legitimacy, and most of Petrograd’s citizens did not realise a revolution had occurred.

A depiction of the 1917 Revolution on the St Petersburg Metro

The disregard for a Bolshevik government reveals, even at this stage, there was little Bolshevik support. This was reinforced in the November elections when the Bolsheviks only won 25% (9 million) of the votes while the Socialist Revolutionaries won 58% (20 million).

So even though the October Revolution established Bolshevik authority, they were explicitly not a majority.

The Bolshevik Bluff?

The ‘Bolshevik bluff’ is the idea that the ‘majority’ of Russia was behind them – that they were the people’s party and the saviours of the proletariat and peasants.

The ‘Bluff’ only disintegrated after the Civil War, when the Reds (Bolsheviks) were pitted against the Whites (counter-revolutionaries and the Allies). The Civil War dismissed the Bolsheviks authority, as it became clear that a sizeable opposition stood against the Bolshevik ‘majority’.

However, ultimately Russia’s Red Army won the Civil War, placing the Bolsheviks into power in Russia. What began as the Bolshevik faction was transformed into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Alice Loxton

.