Category: russian revolution

Violence Erupts in Baku

Azerbaijani victims of the violence in Baku.

March 31 1918, Baku–A major oil boomtown, much of the world had their eyes on Baku in 1918.  The Turks had ambitions in the Caucasus, but were still busy retaking their own territory; the British Dunsterforce aimed to prevent this, but was still in Persia.  The Bolsheviks wanted to maintain Russian control over the area, but faced opposition from the local Azerbaijani population.  The existence of a large Armenian minority, suspicious of the general pro-Turkish Azerbaijanis, also added to tensions.  The return of Azerbaijani soldiers from Russian army units after its demobilization concerned the Bolsheviks, and they tried to disarm as many of them as they could.

While it is still unclear exactly how violence started, it had something to do with the visit of Azerbaijani soldiers by boat, who the Bolsheviks attempted to disarm.  By late on March 31, after shots had already been exchanged, the Bolsheviks broke off any attempts at talks and were prepared to take this opportunity to crush Azerbaijani political opposition entirely.  A makeshift alliance of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and other socialist parties, and Armenians attacked Azerbaijani soldiers, militia, and civilians over the next few days, killing at least 10,000 and causing many times that number to flee the city.

Today in 1917: Danish Virgin Islands Transferred to United States


Today in 1916: Large Zeppelin Raid on London, East Anglia
Today in 1915:  Thomas Hardy: “The Pity of It”

March 12, 1918 – Bolsheviks Move Russian Capit…

March 12, 1918 – Bolsheviks Move Russian Capital from Petrograd to Moscow

Pictured – Children look at a demolished statue of Tsar Alexander III in Moscow.

The peace made between the Bolsheviks and the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 stripped Russia of most of its western European territory.  Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Germany divided up Russian territory in the Baltic, Poland, Galicia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus between them or parceled it into client states. Russia had been reduced to the borders it had before Peter the Great.

This put the capital of Petrograd, founded by Peter, under threat. German forces were on its doorstep and any renewal of the war could easily see Petrograd fall to them, or to anti-Bolshevik forces sponsored by them or the British. Meanwhile the population of Petrograd blamed the Bolsheviks for leaving them at the mercy of enemies. Therefore on March 12 the seventh congress of the Bolshevik Party officially approved what had already been done: moving the seat of government to Moscow. A secret evacuation moved the government behind the walls of the Kremlin in Moscow. Ironically, the movement that had toppled any last connection to the Tsars now held court in Russia’s medieval capital.

March 6, 1918 – Allied Intervention in Russia …

March 6, 1918 – Allied Intervention in Russia Begins as Royal Marines Land in Murmansk

Pictured – Troops of the Slavo-British Legion, a White Russian force raised by the British in Murmasnk.

In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks portrayed the Allied
intervention in Russia as a concentrated effort by world capitalism to
smash the Red revolution in the bud. This is still probably the dominant
interpretation most people think of when they think of the Russian
Civil War, however it is not what actually happened at all.

The first Allied troops to land in Russia landed at Murmasnk on March 6, 1918. They were Royal Marines, invited by the local soviet, an action approved by Vladimir Lenin. The idea was to support the Red Army against the Germans; unfortunately the support arrived too late. Russia had surrendered at Brest-Litvosk two days earlier. Yet it was the beginning of the Allied Intervention in Russia, which began on a small-scale to fight the Germans and eventually became a massive effort against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War.

February 28, 1918 – Bolsheviks Arrive at Brest…

February 28, 1918 – Bolsheviks Arrive at Brest-Litvosk to Make Peace

Pictured – A German poster celebrates the peace with now independent Ukraine, some weeks earlier.

After some desperate pleading, the Bolsheviks obtained an agreement to make peace with the Central Powers. On the last day of February 1918, the Russian delegation arrived at Brest-Litovsk again to resume the negotiations as before Germany ended the armistice. But their humiliations were to continue for a few more days, as the Germans refused to cease their invasion until the treaty was actually signed. In the meantime, German and Austrian forces finished the conquest of the Baltic, capturing the naval base at Reval. On the 27th Mogilev, the sight of Russia’s military headquarters, Stavka, fell. That day a bomber dropped its payload on Petrograd. The Bolsheviks had no chance but to sign to end the war before more of Russia’s chief city fell into enemy hands.

Former Tsarist officers labor in Petrograd. In…

Former Tsarist officers labor in Petrograd. In February and March 1918, War Commissar Leon Trotsky called for imperial officers to help lead the new Red Army. 8,000 volunteered to escape unemployment and to to continue fighting the Germans. Later in the war, however, Trotsky was forced to conscript ex-imperial officers. Although officially “military experts,” many of the Red Army’s leaders were closer to hostages, as their families would be held accountable if officers failed or defected to the anti-Bolshevik Whites. This system proved effective and created stable, competent leadership for the Red Army.

February 14, 1918 – Russia Adopts the Western …

February 14, 1918 – Russia Adopts the Western Calendar

Pictured – Revolutionary time.

Thoughtful readers may have noticed that the February Revolution in Russia occurred in March, and that the October Revolution of 1918 happened on November 7. Unlike Western Europe, the Orthodox and Islamic populations of the east had stuck with the old Roman Julian calendar. By 1918 only a few holdouts remained.

The Bolsheviks swept away the old calendar along with the other vestiges of  feudalism. Russia switched to the Gregorian calendar by skipping from February 1st, on the old calendar, ahead to February 14, catching up to the rest of Europe. The Tsar, imprisoned in Tobolsk with his family, was irritated by the change. “We learned from instructions which we received in the mail to change our
calendar from the 1st of February and count as if today were already
the 14th of February. This misunderstanding and confusion will not be
the last!“ The deposed monarch still underestimated Lenin and did not realize the full extent of changes in Russia since his abdication.

The Orthodox Church maintained the Julian calendar for religion, and there are “Old Calendarists” in Eastern Europe still today. Greece was the last nation in Europe to adopt Gregorian time, switching over in March 1924.

Last Day of the Julian Calendar in Russia

The Sovnarkom decree announcing the change of calendars.

February 13 1918, Petrograd–In keeping with the Russian Orthodox Church, Russia had maintained its use of the Julian Calendar, viewing the Gregorian calendar suspiciously as a Catholic invention.  As a result of the Gregorian calendar’s occasionally-missing leap days, the dates in Russia had slipped thirteen days behind the Gregorian over the centuries.  The February and October Revolutions in 1917 took place in March and November by the Gregorian calendar.  

The Bolsheviks, who had already been anathematized by the Russian Orthodox Church for their explicitly anti-religious views, held no special affection for the Julian Calendar.  Modifications to the calendar were also not uncommon for European revolutions; the French had tried a far more radical change in the 1790′s.  On January 24 in the Julian Calendar, Sovnarkom decreed an upcoming switch to the Gregorian Calendar, to bring them in line with the rest of Europe’s workers.  The final day of the Julian Calendar in Russia was January 31 (February 13 in most of the rest of Europe), which was followed by February 14.  To ease the transition, the Julian date would be written in parentheses after all dates until July 1.

Several other belligerents had switched their calendars during the war, even without a revolution–presumably to coordinate with their allies or as part of a break with Russia.  Bulgaria had switched in November 1915, shortly after entering the war; Turkey had aligned their days and months with the Gregorian calendar in March 1917 (though they continued to mark their years in the Islamic fashion).  Serbia and Romania would continue to use the Julian calendar until March 1919, and Greece (whose “November Events,” the Noemvriana, took place in December by the Gregorian reckoning) until February 1923.

On a more personal note, this author is especially glad that the Bolsheviks switched the calendar, as the difference has caused no shortage of headaches; there has definitely been a few last-minute scrambles when the author realized an about-to-be posted event actually occurred thirteen days later.

Today in 1917: Mata Hari Arrested


Today in 1916: First Aerial Attack on Kut; Scurvy Cases on the Rise
Today in 1915: Gurkhas Surprise Turks at Tor

February 11, 1918 – Don Cossack Hetman Alexei …

February 11, 1918 – Don Cossack Hetman Alexei Kaledin Commits Suicide as Red Forces Conquer Rostov

Pictured – Kaledin was the first leader of the White movement, but his rebellion against Bolshevik rule was short-lived and doomed to failure. General Denikin’s small Volunteer Army survived, however, and grew to be a powerful challenger to Lenin’s state.

When Russians heard that the Don Cossacks had deserted the Tsar in March 1918, they had known that the Romanov dynasty was at an end. The Don Cossacks historically served as the loyal policemen of the Tsars, cracking down on rebellion; the fact that even they had become disillusioned with autocracy was the surest proof possible that Russians wanted change.

But as Russia descended into turmoil its Cossacks had to ask themselves what they wanted for the future. On one hand, many young Cossack soldiers returning from the front agreed with the most revolutionary demands: land redistribution, peace, rule by soldiers’ councils. The Don region also contained masses of non-Cossack Russians who had moved there to work in its great factories. These workers had little property and faced constant mistreatment by the privileged Cossacks.

On the other hand, the older Cossack who ruled in the Don could not abide the provocative new government in Petrograd, which threatened to abolish any traditional sway the Don Host had. They had the support of Alexei Kaledin. Kaledin, from the Don, had served as a general with Brusilov during the war. Returning home, he supported the movement for an autonomous Don Cossack government, and was elected Hetman of the movement.

The Don region, in open rebellion against Lenin, became a haven for all opponents of the Bolshevik regime. The most notable in hindsight were Generals Mikhail Alekseev, Lavr Kornilov, and Anton Denikin, who began raising a Volunteer Army of men to fight the Reds and the Germans, although for he could scrape together a paltry force of barely 1,000 officers.

Unfortunately for the Whites, the Reds could raise far more men than that. Combined with ethnic-Russian workers eager to overthrow a Cossack government, Bolshevik forces smashed their way into the region and by February 11 Rostov-on-Don was conquered and Kaledin’s power squashed. The government which had elected Kaledin now voted for peace. Crushed, the Hetman resigned his position, walked into another room, and shot himself in the chest.

Bolsheviks Disband Constituent Assembly

The Tauride Palace, briefly home to the Constituent Assembly.

January 19 1918, Petrograd–The long-awaited Constituent Assembly, that would draw up the new Russian constitution after the fall of the Czar, finally convened for the first time on January 18.  The Bolsheviks had let the elections for the body go forward in late November, and they performed poorly, polling no more than 25%.  Since then, they had done everything in their power to delay and discredit it, stressing especially that the split in the SR party after the October Revolution meant the membership of the body (with a large plurality of SR members from both wings) was no longer representative.  

Parties opposed to the Bolsheviks put much faith in the Constituent Assembly as a counterweight to the Bolshevik Sovnarkom, but knew the Bolsheviks would try to get rid of it at the first opportunity.  In the hours before the Constituent Assembly opened, they organized a large demonstration calling for “All Power to the Constituent Assembly” (echoing the “All Power to the Soviets” calls of 1917), having abandoned plans for an armed uprising.  Bolshevik troops fired on the crowds–the first time shots were fired at protesters since the February Revolution.

When the Assembly opened late on the afternoon of the 18th, many of its members were still imprisoned by the Bolsheviks.  Large numbers of armed Bolsheviks were in the galleries, almost outnumbering the members of the assembly, and conducting invasive searches upon entry.  A few speeches were made by non-Bolsheviks, and then the Bolsheviks introduced Lenin’s “Declaration of the Rights of the Working People,” which proclaimed Russia as a Soviet republic and endorsed all of Sovnarkom’s radical decrees on land and property.  The motion was defeated by a 20-point margin, and the Bolsheviks walked out; Lenin told his colleagues that “the situation is clear and we can get rid of them.”

To appease his Left SR allies, Lenin did not disperse the Constituent Assembly by force, but simply ordered that the doors to the building be locked after the session finished for the night, and that they not be reopened the next day.  The remaining delegates left at 4:40 AM on January 19.  Russia’s first democratically-elected body had lasted only little more than twelve hours.  The anti-Bolshevik majority in the Constituent Assembly did not vociferously object or stage protests, but went back home to attempt to reorganize outside Petrograd.  Two days later, a Congress of Soviets convened and wholeheartedly approved Lenin’s Declaration.

Today in 1917: Silvertown Munitions Explosion

Today in 1916: General Nixon Leaves Mesopotamia
Today in 1915:  First Zeppelin Raid on Britain

Sources include: Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy.

January 19, 1918 – Armed Guards Dissolve the R…

January 19, 1918 – Armed Guards Dissolve the Russian Constituent Assembly When it Refuses to Recognize Bolshevik Rule

Pictured – The first and only meeting of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly

Did Lenin’s government have a mandate to rule? The great failure of Lenin’s predecessor, Kerensky, was that he never held an election for the Constituent Assembly, Russia’s parliament, to figure out a legitimate government for the nation. The Bolsheviks did not make the same mistake: on November 25, 1917, Russia had the freest election in its history.

They did not win, though. It was not even close. While urban electorates turned out for Bolshevik candidates, the majority of Russian peasants and soldiers voted in the Socialist Revolutionaries, a leftist party of agrarian reform. The SRs had been allies of the soviets, but were generally more moderate in their demands. The Bolsheviks won less than a quarter of the seats, and the other parties like the liberal Kadets and the Mensheviks brought in a paltry few.

Lenin had warned worrying in the days before the election that his party did “not have a Constituent Assembly fetish. There might arise a
situation where we would oppose the Constituent Assembly, along with the
Soviets.” That should have worried Russians more than it did, because when the Constituent Assembly met on January 18 to write a constitution, it insisted on honoring the election rather than arbitrarily confirming the existing soviet government, as Lenin demanded.

The Bolsheviks only took democracy so far. Lenin harangued that the Bolshevik party line, not the free elections, represented the mandate of the people. Supported by the radical Left SRs, his proxy, a Bolshevik MP named Skvortsov-Stepanov, fell on the members of the Assembly: 

“How can you appeal to such a concept as the will of the
whole people? For a Marxist ‘the people’ is an inconceivable notion:
the people does not act as a single unit. The people as a unit is a mere
fiction, and this fiction is needed by the ruling classes. It is all
over between us,” he summed up. “You belong to one world, with the
cadets and the bourgeoisie, and we to the other, with the peasants and
the workers.”

There were to be no disputes. Like a Roman warlord, Lenin called in his troops to disperse the senate. Armed soldiers and sailors marched in, not harming the members of the assembly, but looming menacingly. Eventually the guard commander got tired, and warned the parliamentarians that it would be best to leave before his troops got fed up. The remaining Constituent Assembly members frantically tried to pass socialist reform measures, including an appeal to Britain and France to make a democratic peace with Germany. Nothing came of it, and they left.

The next day the Assembly members arrived to find the Tauride Palace where they had met locked. The Bolsheviks and Left SRs had declared it dissolved, and appointed the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in its place. Russia’s brief period of true democracy was ended.