The Bolsheviks Come to Power

Alexander Rabinowitch is Professor of History and Director of the Russian and East European Institute at Indiana University. In his latest book, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, Rabinowitch presents a reinterpretation of the background and causes of the October Revolution in the Russian capital. He states at the outset that his extensive research has prompted him to question the view of historians in the Soviet Union that historical inevitability and the role of a tightly knit Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin accounted for the outcome of the October Revolution in 1917. Likewise, he challenges the basic assumption of many Western scholars who, he states, have viewed the October Revolution as mainly the result of a well-executed coup d’état carried out without significant mass support. In conducting his research, Rabinowitch examines the political and social aspirations of the Petrograd workers, soldiers, and sailors. He finds, as have others, that the aspirations of the masses corresponded closely to the program of political, social, and economic reform advanced by the Bolsheviks at a time when other major political parties were widely discredited because of their failure to press hard enough for needed changes and, above all, for an immediate end to Russia’s participation in World War I. Rabinowitch presents new information on the nature of the Bolshevik Party organizations in Petrograd and the relative independence with which they operated in their efforts to enlarge popular support for the Bolshevik programs. The objective of his study, then, is twofold: first, to assess the aspirations of the masses for sweeping reform and the outlook and activity of the Bolshevik Party organizations during 1917, and second, to demonstrate how the Bolsheviks, by winning over the Petrograd masses, were able to seize power in October of that year.

Rabinowitch cites several related reasons for focusing his attention exclusively on the revolution in Petrograd. First, because Petrograd. as the Czarist capital (known prior to the outbreak of World War I as St. Petersburg), had long been associated with strong, centralized rule, control of the institutions and symbols of national power by the revolution (such as Petrograd) was of major significance in determining its course and success throughout the country. In addition to its leading place politically, Petrograd was Russia’s most important commercial and industrial center. For this reason and simply because there is so much more information available on the Petrograd of 1917 than any other Russian city in 1917, a study of the political, economic, and social developments there provides a model for understanding the nature of the revolution in urban Russia generally. Finally, and most significant for the purposes of this book, Petrograd was the national headquarters of the Bolshevik Party and, therefore, the center of its activities; hence, it is there that the author feels he can best study the party’s total operational structure and the manner in which the Bolsheviks interacted with and eventually won over the masses.

The objective of the book, as stated above, together with its locational focus, go far toward defining its overall scope. In the introduction, the author discusses the period of the revolution from its beginning in February through the disastrous Russian offensive against the Austrians and the Germans in the second half of June. The greater part of the book thus concentrates on major episodes in the revolution from July to October, including the July Uprising of the Bolsheviks, their momentary decline and gradual resurgence by late summer, the unsuccessful coup of General Lavr Kornilov against the Provisional Government, and the plotting of the Bolsheviks during early fall which culminated in the October Revolution. Throughout his study, Rabinowitch concentrates on the growth of popular support for the Bolshevik cause.

At best, popular support for the Bolsheviks was relatively weak at the time of Lenin’s return to Russia early in April, 1917. Lenin, the author relates, lost little time in trying to correct this situation. Thus, a few days after his return, Lenin published his celebrated “April Theses,” in which he defined the broad objectives of his movement. Russia, he stated, was in a period of transition between the “bourgeois democratic” stage, with which he identified the Provisional Government established two months before, and the “socialist” stage, which would come when power was transferred to the soviets, that is, the revolutionary councils representing the workers, soldiers, and peasants. Lenin, therefore, saw his party’s primary task as that of convincing the masses that the Provisional Government could not bring peace and that the soviets were the only true revolutionary form of government. For the time being, the Bolsheviks were to concentrate their efforts on increasing and consolidating their strength in the soviets.

As of April, Rabinowitch explains, most Bolshevik leaders felt that these goals would not be accomplished in the near future; but in the weeks that followed, deteriorating economic conditions, especially food shortages and mounting inflation, caused the workers, soldiers, and sailors in Petrograd to repudiate the Provisional Government and to demand transfer of state power to the soviets. The soldiers and sailors, in particular, were opposed to the determination of the Provisional Government to continue the war as the means of securing not only peace but territorial annexations...

(The entire section is 2284 words.)


Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, August 15, 1976, p. 952.

Library Journal. CI, October 1, 1976, p. 2062.

New York Times Book Review. December 12, 1976, p. 2.