Russian Revolution: May and June 1917

Petrograd Soviet

May and June: Provisional Government weak but revolutionary movement not yet able to take power

The situation is one of dual power: the weakness of the Provisional Government is becoming increasingly clear; the revolutionary movement not yet able to take control. Right-wing social democrats are poised to join a coalition with the capitalist and pro-tsarist establishment. At the same time, the Bolsheviks are strengthening their political position – following Lenin’s return from exile – putting forward a clearer socialist alternative and gaining ground.

May

1: The Petrograd Soviet executive votes in favour of the formation of the coalition government – 41 for, 18 against, with three abstentions – the Bolsheviks and Menshevik-Internationalists vote against.

2: The foreign minister Pavel Miliyukov resigns, a consequence of mass protests against his fulsome support of the allies’ first world war aims (the ‘Miliyukov note’).

4: Leon Trotsky, Natalya Sedova and their sons, Lev and Sergei, arrive in Petrograd from exile in New York and imprisonment in Canada. The All-Russia Soviet of Peasant Deputies is established.

5: The second Provisional Government is formed, with prince Georgy Lvov president and Alexander Kerensky war minister. It is a coalition including six ‘socialist’ ministers (two Mensheviks, two Social Revolutionaries, two others) out of 15. At the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky warns the working class against having illusions in the establishment politicians – that it must rely on its own strength as part of an international revolutionary movement. This puts him firmly in Lenin’s camp. The Soviet, still led by Mensheviks and SRs, votes to back the government – the Bolsheviks mobilise 100 votes against.

7: A meeting to celebrate his return from exile brings together Trotsky’s Inter-District Organisation (Mezhraiontsy), the Bolsheviks, and Maxim Gorky’s group, the United Internationalists. The meeting denounces the counter-revolutionary nature of the coalition government, criticises its backing by the Petrograd Soviet, while recognising that the soviets are “the only possible, the only real form of people’s revolutionary power”. It resolves to win the soviets to a socialist and internationalist programme.

11: Kerensky visits the front to start preparations for a new war offensive in June.

14: Kerensky inadvertently sums up the impotence of liberal politicians in the face of imperialist pressure to intensify the war – and from the revolutionary masses to end it – when addressing troops: “You will carry on the points of your bayonets, peace!”

17: The Kronstadt Soviet announces that it is taking control of the surrounding area.

22: General Brusilov is appointed head of the army to execute the June offensive.

25: An All-Russia SR congress gets underway.

30: The first congress of factory and shop committees begins in Petrograd.

June 1917

Russia is on rations, food supplies to the troops and towns running low – Petrograd, Moscow and other major cities receive 10% of the grain they need. The government, a coalition of capitalists and right-wing socialists, has failed to deliver on the promises made during the February revolution. Strikes against factory closures and land seizures by peasants increase. The influence and membership of the Bolshevik party is growing – from 15,000 in the capital Petrograd at the end of April to 82,000 by the end of June.

Early June: Former US secretary of state, Elihu Root, on an official visit to Petrograd, ramps up pressure on the Provisional Government to intensify the war. He sums it up bluntly: “No war, no loans!” By-elections to the soviets see gains for the Bolsheviks, now the largest party in the Moscow Soviet with 206 deputies – the Mensheviks (right-wing socialists) have 176, the peasant-based Social Revolutionary party 110.

3: The first All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies begins in Petrograd. Of the 822 voting delegates, 285 are SRs, 248 Mensheviks, 105 Bolsheviks, and 32 Menshevik Internationalists. At the congress, Lenin calls for measures against bosses who are locking out tens of thousands of workers in an attempt to weaken the movement and derail the revolution. A strike-wave erupts among the most exploited, mainly unskilled workers.

8: Sailors on the Sevastopol battleship arrest their officers.

9: Following a conference of workers’ representatives, the Bolsheviks’ main newspaper, Pravda, calls for a demonstration on the 10th in opposition to the Menshevik and SR coalition with the capitalists, and to end the war. The Central Council of Factory and Shop Committees backs the decision, as does Trotsky’s group, the Mezhraiontsy. Sections of workers and soldiers in Petrograd are calling for the seizure of power but Lenin and Trotsky understand that this is too far ahead of the mood in the rest of Russia. They maintain the need to win majority support in the soviets for a socialist alternative.

10: The Petrograd Soviet executive demands that the demo is called off – the Bolsheviks argue in defence of the right to peaceful protest. The Mensheviks and SRs get agreement at the all-Russia congress to ban demonstrations for three days. Confronted with this ultimatum, the Bolsheviks decide not to go ahead. The Putilov factory (40,000 workers) and the First Machine Gun Regiment reluctantly agree to postpone the action, but only after lengthy discussion with Bolshevik party reps.

11: The Mensheviks step up the campaign against the Bolsheviks, falsely claiming they are German government collaborators. The Mensheviks attempt to retake the initiative by calling demonstrations on the 18th.

16: War minister Alexander Kerensky orders a new military offensive in Galicia (central-eastern Europe) against Austro-Hungarian and German forces – stocks and shares rise on the Paris Bourse! The offensive begins on the 18th, eventually causing 400,000 Russian casualties (150,000 killed).

18: The day of action backfires on the Mensheviks and SRs, turning into mass support for the Bolsheviks. Up to half a million march in Petrograd demanding ‘all power to the soviets!’ and ‘down with the offensive!’ Similar protests take place in Moscow, Kyiv, Kharkov and elsewhere. Anarchists in the capital attack prisons freeing several hundred inmates.

20: The Petrograd Soviet passes a resolution greeting the Russian army’s initial advances by 472 votes to 271, with 39 abstentions. The size of the opposition marks a leftward shift, with Bolsheviks, Menshevik Internationalists and left-wing SR members now making up two-fifths of the soviet.

21: The machine gun regiment refuses to fight for imperialist war aims. Many soldiers are arrested, others step up pressure on the Bolsheviks to seize power.

22: Patriotic demonstrations, whipped up by pro-war propaganda, lead to scuffles. Far-right groups are formed – the Military League, the Union of the Cavaliers of St George, the Volunteers’ Division and others make military coup plans. Bolshevik newspapers warn the garrisons of the danger of being provoked into premature armed conflict.

23: A conference of representatives of the factory and shop committees, the Central Trade Union Bureau and more than 70 factories agrees to back the Bolsheviks’ approach to building the revolutionary movement.

24: The Bolshevik-led soviet in Petrograd’s industrial Vyborg district adopts a resolution opposing the war policy, and condemning the Mensheviks and SRs.

26: The Grenadier Guard Regiment returns from the front and joins with anarchists at the Kronstadt naval base.

28: Trotsky steps up efforts to merge the Mezhraiontsy (Inter-District Organisation) with the Bolshevik party.

Under Lenin’s leadership (backed by Trotsky) the Bolshevik party’s programme sets it apart from other political groups. Its class-struggle policies to fight job losses, for the eight-hour day and workers’ control win over industrial centres and working-class districts. It openly opposes the military offensive and has important bases of support in the armed forces. Constant vilification in the capitalist press and by establishment politicians reinforces the view that the Bolsheviks are the only ones fighting consistently for the workers, soldiers and peasants. Their successes have marked them out, however, and counter-revolutionary forces are moving against them with ever more determination.