Who Were the Bolsheviks and How Did They Rise to Power?

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Russian Revolution Twentieth Century World
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On the 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’). In reality, the Bolsheviks were a minority party led by Vladimir ILyich Ulyanov (Vladimir Lenin) and they would not have the majority until 1922.

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The split in the party resulted from differing views on party membership and ideology. Lenin wanted the party to be a vanguard of those committed to a proletariat-based revolution.

This gained the Bolsheviks some favour, and their aggressive stance towards the bourgeoisie appealed to younger members.

Bloody Sunday

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

A Russian Orthodox priest named Father Georgy Gapon led a workers’ procession to present a petition to the Tsar on Bloody Sunday.

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 to compromise Marxist ideals. In 1906, the Bolsheviks had 13,000 members, the Mensheviks had 18,000.

Following the bloodshed on Bloody Sunday in 1905, Tsar Nicholas II opened two chambers on 27 April 1906 – Russia’s first parliament. Image source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H28740 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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 years 1906-1914 were of relative peace, and the Tsar’s moderate reforms discouraged support for extremists. When the First World War erupted in 1914, rallying cries for national unity put the Bolshevik’s demands for reform on the back foot.

First World War

At the outbreak of the war, political upheaval in Russia softened due to the rallying cry of national unity. Hence, the Bolsheviks faded to the background of politics.

This Russian recruitment poster reads “World on fire; Second Patriotic War.”

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

The Russian Second Army were annihilated by German forces at the Battle of Tannenberg, resulting in swathes of captured Russians taken as prisoners.

Meanwhile, Tsarina Alexandria and the notorious priest Rasputin remained in charge of home affairs. This duo mishandled the situation terribly: they lacked tact and practicality. Non-military factories were being closed down, rations were introduced and the cost of living rose by 300%.

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

Missed opportunities and limited progress

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

Despite this, 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.

The workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd during the February Revolution. The banners read: “Feed the children of the defenders of the motherland” and “Increase payments to the soldiers’ families – defenders of freedom and world peace”.

On 24 February 1917, 200,000 workers took to the streets of Petrograd on strike for better conditions and food. This ‘February Revolution‘ was a perfect opportunity for the Bolsheviks to secure a foothold in gaining power, but they failed to initiate any effective action.

By the 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.

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Post-war momentum

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, which had one million members.

This photo was taken in Petrograd at 2pn on July 4th 1917, during the July Days. The army has just opened fire on street protesters.

Another chance to gain support came in the ‘July Days’. On the 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.

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.

The New York Times headline from 9th November 1917.

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 objectively not the majority party.

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 this Bolshevik ‘majority’.

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