lenin took russia without firing a shot -- 11/28/17

Today's selection -- from Lenin by Victor Sebestyen. When the Communist Party, led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known by the alias Lenin), took over Russia in 1917, not a shot was fired:

"Lenin was desperate to get to the [center of the takeover attempt in] Smolny. The leader should be lead­ing, not hiding away. ...

"Lenin then put on his disguise -- the old clothes of a labourer, a pair of spectacles and the wig that refused to stay in place even when he donned the workman's peaked cap that would become familiar in coming years.

"He had shaved off his trademark reddish beard earlier in the summer. He wrapped a dirty handkerchief around his face. If anyone stopped him the plan was to say that he was suffering from toothache. ...

Boris Kustodiev's 1920 painting "Bolshevik"

"[Lenin and his bodyguard, Eino Rakhia] walked down Liteiny Prospekt -- close to the Smolny -- but ran into two army cadets, young officers, who asked for their identification papers. Rakhia was armed with two revolvers and reckoned that if nec­essary he was prepared to fight it out with them. Then he had a better idea. He whispered to Lenin, 'I can deal with those soldiers, you go on,' and Lenin moved off. Rakhia began to distract the guards by arguing with them, swaying unsteadily on his feet and slurring his words. The cadets reached for their pistols but decided to do nothing. They let them through thinking they were merely two harmless old drunks. Marxists are not supposed to believe in luck, accident or happenstance, but rather explain life through broad historical forces. Yet the second most influ­ential Bolshevik leader in 1917, Leon Trotsky, said simply that if Lenin had been arrested, or shot, or had not been in Petrograd, 'there would have been no October Revolution'.

"They reached 'great Smolny', a huge ochre-coloured Palladian build­ing with a colonnaded facade spanning more than 150 metres. ... Lenin was ushered into Room 10, where the Military Revolution­ary Committee had been in permanent session for days. 'We found ourselves in the presence of a little grey-haired old man, wearing a pince­nez,' recalled Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, soon to become one of the Bolsheviks' most ruthless hatchet men. 'You could have taken him for a schoolmaster or a second-hand book dealer. He took off his wig ... and then we recognised his eyes, sparkling as usual with a glint of humour. "Any news?" he asked.'

"In hiding Lenin had known little about the precise details of the coup. The artist of the insurrection dealt in broad brush strokes. Now he saw maps of the city spread out on tables and he was told how the main strongpoints of Petrograd would be in Bolshevik hands by the morning. There were about 25,000 armed Red Guards available, but only a frac­tion of them would be needed, said Trotsky. The revolutionaries would take power without firing a shot. ...

"It has been an enduring myth that the Revolution was an impeccably organised operation by a group of highly disciplined conspirators who knew exactly what they were doing throughout. It is a version of events that suited both sides. Soviet historians in the following decades pre­sented 'glorious October' as a rising of the masses, brilliantly led by the master of timing and tactics, V. I. Lenin, and his skilful, heroic lieuten­ants in the Bolshevik Party, who kept to a strict timetable of insurrection.

"The defeated 'Whites', as they would soon be called, also held to a comforting myth: that they lost power in a precisely calibrated military takeover masterminded by an evil genius whose plans, diabolical though they were, cleverly took account of chaos on the streets of Petrograd. It would not have impressed the loyalists' supporters -- or soothed their own amour propre -- if it was put about that they were beaten by a group of plotters who very nearly botched their revolution. The Bolsheviks might easily have failed if at certain key moments they had met some slight resistance.

"In reality the 'plot' was the worst-kept secret in history. Everyone in Petrograd had heard that the Bolsheviks were preparing an imminent coup. It had been discussed in the press for the past ten days. The main right-wing newspaper Rech (Speech) had even revealed the date, 25 October, and the leftist Novaya Zhizn (New Life), run by the writer Maxim Gorky, had warned the Bolsheviks against using violence and 'shedding more blood in Russia'. The supposedly perfect clockwork timekeeping of the insurrection was so vague that nobody could tell for certain exactly when it began. At one stage the Mayor of Petrograd sent a delegation to the participants of both sides wondering if the uprising had started. He could not get an accurate answer. The Bolsheviks had little military experience. Alexander Genevsky, one of their main commanders on the ground, had been a temporary lieutenant in the Tsarist army, declared unfit after he was gassed early in the First World War. He had been asked to become a 'general' in the rebel forces. His orders were to keep the military planners at the Smolny up to date with events by ring­ing a number that he was told would always be available, 148-11. The few times it wasn't out of order, it was engaged. The Bolsheviks failed to master the Petrograd telephone system and had to send runners through­out the city streets. The key force of sailors from the Kronstadt naval base -- reliable Bolshevik supporters -- arrived in Petrograd a day late.

"They won because the other side, the Provisional Government and its backers -- a coalition of the centre-right, liberals and moderate so­cialists -- were even more incompetent and divided, and because they didn't take the Bolsheviks seriously until it was too late. But mainly it was because most of the people didn't care which side won. In fact, few people realised anything significant had happened until it was all over."

Excerpted from Lenin by Victor Sebestyen Copyright © 2017 by Victor Sebestyen. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Victor Sebestyen


Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror


Pantheon Books


Copyright 2017 by Victor Sebestyen


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