Days that shake the world

John Reed’s eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution of November 1917 illustrates the enduring themes of political change – and reminds us how contingent it can be.

An angry crowd carrying a portrait of Czar Nicholas II to a bonfire in Petrograd following the February Revolution.
An angry crowd carrying a portrait of Czar Nicholas II to a bonfire in Petrograd following the February Revolution. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

How and when does political change occur in authoritarian states? Recent events in Russia have reminded us that seizing or holding power depends on information, argument, momentum, individual choices and timing. Only the successful revolution looks inevitable in hindsight. On the morning of November 6 1917, Lenin was in a distant suburb of Petrograd, then capital of Russia. He did not know the exact position of either the Provisional Government or of the Bolshevik Central Committee. Fearful of being stuck on the wrong side of town, he walked to the Smolny Institute – once a convent school in Tsarist Russia, then the headquarters of the Petrograd Soviet and the All Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. There he found Trotsky, who he bombarded with impatient questions. At 2am on November 7 Trotsky pulled out his watch and said ‘It’s begun.’ Lenin said: ‘From being on the run to supreme power – that’s too much. It makes me dizzy.’ He made the sign of the cross and the two men lay down on the office floor, pulled a rug over themselves and waited for news.

This vignette is in AJP Taylor’s introduction to the 1977 Penguin edition of John Reed’s political classic Ten Days that Shook the World. It has two introductions; the second is a short recommendation by Lenin. Reed was a foreign journalist, in Russia as a representative of the US radical journal The Masses. His vivid eyewitness account may be disputed on multiple points of fact (he admits his sympathies were not neutral but professes the objectivity of a conscientious reporter), but he believed himself to be a chronicler of a moment in time when things changed, and the chaotic blur of change itself.  He says in his own preface that he wanted to catch ‘the spirit which animated the people, and how the leaders looked, talked and acted’.

There is real force in his journalistic writing. His account shows that at crucial moments things fell one way or the other for intangible reasons, more by chance than design. It demonstrates how slippery power can be when you try to hold or seize it, the very human and unscientific moments when those in power decide whether to use force, and when the levers of power turn out to be connected to nothing at all. What stands out most is uncertainty, confusion, contradictions, ordinariness. Reed evokes brilliantly the situation in Petrograd that autumn – people were cold, wet, hungry, muddy, exhausted, fearful, angry but also still dining in restaurants and going to the ballet. On the night of the revolution Reed went to the Hotel France for dinner: ‘Right in the middle of the soup the waiter, very pale in the face, came up and insisted that we move to the main dining room at the back of the house, because they were going to put out the lights in the café. “There will be much shooting”, he said.’

The moment of political change has distinct – and instructive – themes. The first is knowledge, or the lack of it. There was a huge thirst for information, a clamour for newspapers, even if they contained only propaganda or entreaty. Rumours of the dark forces and black arts that sought to restore the old regime swirled around Russia. One might argue that you have to be in the thick of things to know what is going on. Reed’s account shows that, even in the thick of things, no-one knew exactly what was going on. ‘Monarchist plots, German spies, smugglers hatching schemes…  And in the rain, the bitter chill, the great throbbing city under grey skies rushing faster and faster towards – what?’ he asks. He cites a selection of items culled from the newspapers on 29 October: a concentration of military units loyal to the Provisional Government, including the Guard Regiments, Savage Division, Cossacks and Death Battalions, the Armoured Car Division of the Petrograd garrison stationed in the Winter Palace. At the same time, under orders signed by Trotsky, several thousand rifles delivered by the Government Arms Factory at Sestroretzk to the delegates of the Petrograd workmen. ‘Everybody knew that something was going to happen,’ he writes, ‘but nobody knew just what.’

On November 6 Reed had business with the censor, whose office was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: ‘At the corner of the Morskaya and the Nevsky, squads of soldiers with fixed bayonets were stopping all private automobiles, turning out the occupants and ordering them towards the Winter Palace. Nobody knew whether the soldiers belonged to the Government or the Military Revolutionary Committee.’ Even on the morning of November 7 nothing was clear: on finding the entrances to the Winter Palace closed by sentries he remarks: ‘We couldn’t make out whether the sentries were pro-Government or pro-Soviet’. It wasn’t only the soldiers who were hard to identify: at the beginning of November 1917, Trotsky – President of the Petrograd Soviet – and his wife were halted by a sentry at the outer gate to the Smolny Institute who would not let them in without their papers; Trostsky searched through his pockets but could not find his pass. The soldier said: ‘You cannot go in. Names don’t mean anything to me.’ John Reed was watching as Trotsky patiently talked his way in.

The next theme is argument. It might appear afterwards that the right course of action was clear. But in the thick of things every aspect was debated with vigour and – often – anger; even those on the same side disagreed violently about the best way to achieve their ends. Reed describes in vivid detail the endless rows, real vitriol between, in particular, Bolshevik and Menshevik leaders, and even between people in the same party: not on whether there should be a revolution but on whether an uprising against the Provisional Government was more or less likely to achieve their revolutionary aims. The Menshevik case – that too much violence would undermine the gains they had made – might have been right. All were convinced that they were acting in the best interests of their country but simply differed on how: Prime Minister Kerensky argued passionately that those behind the revolution were helping only the German war effort: ‘I qualify such acts of a Russian political party as acts of treason to Russia!’

Maxim Gorky, who had switched from supporting the Provisional Government, somewhat equivocally, towards the Bolsheviks, observed in his paper Novaya Zhizn that both reactionary and government newspapers were inciting the Bolsheviks to violence, but that insurrection would just pave the way for a new General Kornilov (the Commander in Chief who had, in August 1917, unsuccessfully mobilised to put down the Petrograd Soviet, seriously undermining Kerensky’s authority).  The debate was not just about what would be most effective, but on getting the timing right. According to Reed, it was Lenin who set the date of November 7, the day of the meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies: November 6 would be too early because not enough people would have arrived, while November 8 would be too late because ‘by that time Congress will be organised, and it is difficult for a large organized body of people to take swift, decisive action’.

Many others disagreed. Even on November 7 itself the argument raged at the Congress of Soviets meeting in the Smolny Institute as the Bolsheviks won more seats on the Presidium than the Mensheviks. ‘But suddenly a new sound made itself heard, deeper than the tumult of the crowd, persistent, disquieting – the dull shock of guns,’ writes Reed. ‘People looked anxiously toward the clouded windows, and a sort of fever came over them.’ The arguments continued while the guns blasted the Winter Palace: ‘Always the methodical muffled boom of cannon through the windows, and the delegates, screaming at each other…’.

The other split – with huge consequences – was on whether Russia should end the war and on what terms. On October 30 Reed met Trotsky in a small bare room in the attic of the Smolny Institute. Trotsky argued that a Government of the Soviets would be a powerful factor for immediate peace in Europe: ‘”At the end of this war I see Europe re-created, not by the diplomats but by the proletariat. The Federated Republic of Europe – the United States of Europe – that is what must be.”  … He smiled – that fine, faintly ironical smile of his.’ This too might have seemed inevitable in November 1917, but the response from the workers of Europe was patchy at best. This part of the revolution did not happen. Reed gives voice to many beautifully drawn characters, all of whom articulate their own views on how best to proceed and all with personal ambitions (who has heard of most of them now?).

The next theme is compromise. When does a regime clamp down and when does it give?  When does it compromise in order to maintain power, and when does the act of compromising betray a fatal weakness, which – if the forces of change are lucky – is the beginning of their opportunity? When should revolutionaries compromise in order to achieve their objectives (the Bolsheviks referred derisively to the Mensheviks as ‘compromisers’)?  Kerensky’s promise of gradual change was mistrusted by those who felt that it would be blocked. The failed intervention of Kornilov – the threat of force – ironically resulted in Kerensky releasing imprisoned Bolsheviks. ‘In the relations of a weak Government and a rebellious people there comes a time when every act of the authorities exasperates the masses, and every refusal excites their contempt’, observes Reed. The revolutionaries had demanded Kerensky’s Provisional Government give land to the peasants and rights to the soldiers. On October 29 a joint commission of the Government and the Council of the Republic hastily drew up two laws, one for giving the land temporarily to the peasants, and the other for pushing an energetic foreign policy of peace. But they were too late: ‘Along a thousand miles of front the millions of men in Russia’s armies stirred like the sea rising, pouring into the capital their hundreds upon hundreds of delegations, crying, “Peace! Peace!”‘.

In fact, the real signal for the start of the revolution came not from Lenin and Trotsky but from Kerensky’s Provisional Government, which decided on November 5 to suppress the Bolshevik papers and arrest the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet. A detachment of Cadets occupied the offices of Pravda, stopped the presses and sealed the doors. This was the defining moment: Trotsky ordered them to break the seals and by that afternoon copies of Pravda were once again being sold on the streets.

Power depends itself on power and becomes momentum. As the United States found to its cost in Afghanistan in 2021, there is a tipping point where people make personal choices believing that the balance of power has already shifted. It becomes safer to side with the revolutionaries than with the existing authority. At that moment, the sum of those personal choices becomes the critical mass for change. The military – the manifestation of the state’s power – is the test. The Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee spearheaded the battle for control of the army. The attitude of the Petrograd Garrison was key. Which side is the army on?  Will the soldiers follow orders? The confusion expressed by Reed about whether the soldiers were loyal to the Provisional Government or the Military Revolutionary Committee existed until he was inside the Winter Palace.

The end is often quiet, or not clear. When Reed entered the chamber where the Ministers of the Provisional Government had been in session until a few hours earlier, he found ‘the long table covered with green baize just as they had left it, under arrest. Before each empty seat was pen, ink, and paper; the papers were scribbled over with the beginnings of plans of action, rough drafts of proclamations and manifestos. Most of these were scratched out, as their futility became evident, and the rest of the sheet covered with absent-minded geometrical designs, as the writers sat despondently listening while Minister after Minister proposed chimerical schemes.’ He emerged from the Palace at three in the morning on November 8 to find the street lights shining again, the cannon gone and Red Guards squatting around fires. On the pavement was broken stucco from the cornice struck by two shells from the Aurora, the only damage done by the bombardment.

That wasn’t the end. The Provisional Government was deposed and ministers arrested, and then released.  Immediate decisions had lasting consequences. There was no certainty at all of success on the morning of November 8. Defeated factions did not recognise defeat; rumours and accusations about the behaviour of the Red Guards spread immediately. The counter-revolutionary Committee for the Salvation of the Homeland and Revolution was established, including the Mensheviks who had opposed Trotsky. Many Bolsheviks were in favour of compromise to create an all-Socialist government, believing that they couldn’t hold on without wider support. Reed immortalises the revolutionaries: ‘But Lenin, with Trotsky beside him, stood firm as a rock. Let the compromisers accept our programme and they can come in. We won’t give way an inch!’ It was a gamble which set the course for the next century at least.


Suzanne Raine