It was a world-shattering event that happened in a particular month, only for that time frame to be moved on by a momentous change in calendar. The events of 25 October 1917 in Petrograd, however, are remembered always as the October Revolution or, most evocatively, as Red October.
An armed rising on 25 October (in the Old Style calendar, 7 November in the New Style) brought down the provisional government that had replaced Tsarist rule in February. Out went Alexander Kerenski and in came the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Podvoiski, among others. In the swirl of changes, it’s as well to remember that Petrograd had previously been St Petersburg, was to become Leningrad and then revert to St Petersburg after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
It was an ecstatic time for Lenin and one perhaps doubly so for Trotsky, because his 38th birthday fell on 26 October. Here is how one of the great experts on Soviet history, Robert Service, recounts those days for Lenin and Trotsky.
“Films were made of the October Revolution, novels written, songs sung and even ballets danced. In practically all of them a misleading image of Lenin was disseminated. There he is with his fist raised, mouth tense and a bearded chin. In fact, on that historic day of 25 October 1917 he spoke only briefly. He was not the Revolution’s great orator. He did not even look his normal self because it took several further weeks before his moustache and beard grew back to their normal appearance – and indeed he would not agree to being photographed until January 1918. Contrary to conventional accounts, then, Lenin’s importance was not as a speaker in the Congress hall but rather as a strategist and inspirer behind the scenes – and in this role his contribution to the Revolution’s success was crucial.” – Lenin: A Biography (Macmillan, 2000)
“Trotsky was later to describe his tactical preferences as follows: ‘The attacking side is almost always interested in seeming on the defensive. A revolutionary party is interested in legal coverings.’ This was exactly how he behaved in October 1917 when he led the rising against the Provisional Government. Like a general visiting his troops before a battle, he gave speeches here, there and everywhere in the capital …
“He wrote, he orated, he discussed, he organised; he was the greatest all-round activist in revolutionary Russia. Unlike most other revolutionary leaders, he looked more like a runner than a weightlifter. There was a perpetual liveliness about him. When talking to people, he came across as having an artistic sensibility. People noticed how lean his hands were but there was nothing limp about his grasp. Trotsky dominated the preparations for armed insurrection.” – Trotsky: A Biography (Macmillan, 2009)
Striking photographs of Trotsky the intellectual tend to work against the reality of him later as the efficient and ruthless head of the Red Army, an organiser and motivator supreme. The famous early photograph of the student Trotsky, his pince-nez slightly askew, face radiating high intelligence, sensitivity and determination, remains embedded in the mind’s eye and in one’s mental conception of the man.
In exile, hair greying and then snowy white, Trotsky cuts an almost avuncular figure in photographs. It becomes difficult even to imagine why Stalin so badly wanted him dead. The sharpest explanation is probably in Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand M Patenaude (Faber, 2009).
Attacked at Stalin’s behest and dealt savage and amateurish blows to the head with an ice-axe that gouged three inches into his skull, dispersing bone and cerebral matter, Trotsky lingered a while and then died on 21 August 1940. Patenaude’s envoi is gut-wrenching: “Instead, as his prospects grew dim and as Stalin’s assassins closed in, he kept reaffirming his absolute faith in the dogma of Marxism and pointing towards a glorious Soviet future. ‘Optimism was all he really had.’”
Of the October Revolution itself, perhaps one of the most poignant and realistic passages ever written about it is in the novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. In the midst of the transformations of Red October, Yuri Andreevich Zhivago, stoking a fire in the wood stove, speaks to himself:
“What magnificent surgery! To take and at one stroke artistically cut out the old, stinking sores! Simply, without beating around the bush, to sentence age-old injustice, which was used to having people bow and scrape and curtsey before it …
“This unprecedented thing, this miracle of history, this revelation comes bang in the thick of the ongoing everydayness, with no heed to its course. It begins not from the beginning but from the middle, without choosing the dates beforehand, on the first weekday to come along, at the very peak of tramways plying the city. That’s real genius. Only what is greatest can be so inappropriate and timely.” – translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Harvill Secker, 2010)