From the Finland Station

Empfang Lenins am Finnischen Bahnhof April 1917 Public Domain

When Vladimir Lenin reached Petrograd on April 3 on the famous “sealed train” that travelled from Switzerland through Germany, the situation both internally and at the front appeared to have stabilized. The temporary truce between the new Provisional Government and the rebellious masses, however, largely sidestepped the major issue that ushered in the February Revolution: the war. When the aggressive military aims of the Provisional Government were revealed, the “April Days” demonstrations proved that the Revolution was still very much alive.

After February, Tsar Nicholas II had been placed under arrest and a provisional government was formed. At the head of the government was Prince Georgy Lvov, a ceremonial figure who represented the last link with the old regime, but the cabinet was dominated by Liberals frightened by the very revolution that had placed them in power. The Foreign Ministry was Pavel Milyukov, historic leader of the Kadet Party, the Ministry of War was Aleksander Guchkov, Octobrist and chairman of the Duma. The Ministry of Justice was assumed by Socialist Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, the only socialist in the cabinet. The primary task of the new government was to guarantee the Entente and Russian capitalists that the war would continue. As Milyukov expressed to a French journalist, “The Russian Revolution was made in order to remove the obstacles on Russia’s war to victory.”

The revolutionary struggle in February created democratically-elected workers’ councils called Soviets as in the 1905 Revolution, only now these also included soldiers, first in Petrograd and then in all the provinces of the Empire.

On March 1, the Petrograd's Soviet published Order n.1, which declared that “the orders of military commission of the State Duma should be executed only in cases where they do not contradict the orders and decisions of the Council of Workers 'and Soldiers' Deputies”

Additionally, the revolution had brought new, unparalleled freedoms and an end to continual police harassment. When the British journalist Morgan Philips Price arrived by train in Moscow on April 6, he noted: “I walked through the streets and soon remarked the change that had taken place since I was here last. Not a single policeman or gendarme was to be seen. They had all been arrested and sent off to the front in small detachments. Moscow was without any police and seemed to be getting on quite happily without them.”

The Petrograd Soviet was dominated by socialist forces, particularly the Mensheviks. They argued that the government should remain firmly in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the working classes should play the role of counterweight to merely pressure the new Provisional Government. In their view, Russia was not ready for a socialist revolution. A situation of “dual power” developed quickly: a Provisional Government representing the interests of capitalists and landlords on the one side, while the real power was in the hands of the soviets and working classes.

On March 23, the United States entered the war. On that same day, Petrograd buried the victims of the February Revolution. 800,000 people marched to Mars Field, the largest mobilization that year. The funeral became a hymn to international solidarity and a cry for peace; in his classic History of Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote that the “common demonstration of Russian soldiers with Austro-German war-prisoners was a vivid hope-giving fact which made it possible to believe that the revolution, in spite of all, did carry within itself the foundation of a better world.”

Tsereteli and the Menshevik soviet leaders guaranteed external support to the Provisional Government and believed the war should continue, albeit in a “defensive and without annexations” posture. This intermediate position attempted to straddle the government’s mandate to continue the war as if nothing had happened and the soldiers’ and workers’ expectations of a separate peace.

On March 14, the Petrograd Soviet issued a manifesto calling upon “the peoples of Europe to speak and act out jointly and resolutely to foster peace.” But the appeal to German and Austrian workers, which declared “Democratic Russia cannot threaten freedom and civilization” and “We will firmly defend our own freedom from any kind of reactionary encroachments”, was read by many as pro-war. As Trotsky argued, “Milyukov’s paper was a thousand times right when it declared that ‘the manifesto, although it began with so typical a note of pacifism, developed an ideology essentially common to us and to all our allies.’”

Before the February Revolution the war was grinding to a halt, as soldiers refused to fight, deserted in the hundreds of thousands, and fraternized with German soldiers. Dating back to Christmas 1914, this fraternization included dances and exchange of cognac and cigarettes between German and Russian soldiers, and continued for years without producing an open rebellion against the officers. Historian Marc Ferro cites a letter about the officers from a Russian soldier wrote to his wife:

“The war? They sit there while we are in the muck, they get 500 or 600 roubles when we have only 75.’ They were obsessed by unfairness: ‘And then, although it’s the soldiers who have to bear the hardest part of the war, it’s different for them, they are covered with medals, crosses, rewards; but that lot are a long way from the battlefield.”

At first the generals attempted to block news of the rebellion in Petrograd from the troops at the front, only to have German troops inform Russian soldiers of the February Revolution, further eroding soldier’s trust in their officers. Paradoxically, the revolution brought an end to desertions. The soldiers expected an imminent end to the war, and they did not want to undermine the new government’s ability to negotiate peace. Reports from the front showed that the mood was “Support the front, but don’t join the offensive.” As weeks passed, the commander of the Fifth Army reported, “The fighting spirit has declined . . . politics, which has spread through all layers of the army, has made the whole military mass desire one thing—to end the war and go home.” During the first week of April, eight thousand soldiers deserted from the northern and western fronts.

The return of Lenin and the publication of his April Theses brought a fundamental shift in Bolshevik policies, arguing for “no support” for the bourgeois and imperialist Provisional Government. The Bolshevik positions under the direction of Stalin and Kamenev had been moderate and continued to support the position of “Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” to carry out a bourgeois revolution as developed by Lenin in 1905. In an article published in Pravda, the party paper, Kamenev argued that the “April Theses” represented Lenin's “personal opinion” that “Lenin's general scheme appears to us unacceptable since it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois revolution is finished and counts on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.”

At the March 1917 Bolshevik conference, Stalin also supported a possible unification with internationalist Mensheviks “along the lines of Zimmerwald-Kiental.” Yet even in 1915 Lenin was sceptical of the pacifist anti-war terminology of the majority in Zimmerwald that opened the door for supporting the war, calling them “Kauskyite-shitheads.” When he returned in April, Lenin argued for the left Zimmerwald to break the Zimmerwald majority completely, including the Mensheviks, which Stalin and many other Bolsheviks had wanted to unite with.

The tireless Lenin won over the party. The Bolsheviks could count on 79,000 members, of which 15,000 were located in Petrograd. While still a small minority force, especially in the Petrograd Soviet, they were strong enough to have a role in the events.

Neither the government nor the Menshevik leaders at the head of the Soviets wanted the new political crisis that emerged in the second half of April. Milyukov and Russian capitalists had reassured allies about Russia's role in the conflict, and aspired to the seizure of Ottoman Empire-held Dardanelles. However, Milyukov realized that without some agreement with the Soviet, the troops would have hardly accepted and fought for the government's plans.

On the other side, Tsereteli insisted on the necessity of a government announcement that for Russia the war was exclusively one of defence. The resistance of Milyukov and Guchkov was broken, and on March 27 it was declared: “The Russian people does not attempt to strengthen its external power at expense of other people and does not set as its goal the enslavement and humiliation of anyone... But the Russian people will not permit that its motherland should come out of the World War humiliated and undermined in its vital resources.”

The defencist declaration of March 27 was not well-received by the Allies. who saw in it a concession to the Soviets. The French ambassador Maurice Paléologue complained of “the timidity and indefiniteness” of the declaration. But the Milyukov gamble to use the war against the revolution had taken in account the real relationship of forces between the Provisional Government and Soviets. He wanted, step by step, to increase the sway of the former.

A few days later a new meeting took place between representatives of the government and those of the Soviets. Russia desperately needed a loan from allies to continue the war; a new government memorandum could help achieve this goal. On April 18 Milyukov sent a new note to the Allied governments in which emphasized the will to “continue the war in full agreement with the allies and to observe the obligations towards them.” It also claimed that the revolution had merely strengthened the popular will to bring the war to a victorious conclusion. At a special night session on March 19, the Executive Committee of Soviet discussed the note: “It was unanimously and without debate acknowledged by all that this was not at all what the Committee had expected” declared committee member Vladimir Stankevich.

The Rabochaya Gazeta, a Menshevik newspaper, added that Milyukov’s note was a “mockery of the democracy.” However, the prominent paper of the liberal intelligentsia, Novoe Vremya, tried to defend it, stating that it was not possible to tear up existing treaties. If Russia did so, “our allies would also attain freedom of action: if there is no treaty, no one has to observe it . . . We think that with exception of the Bolsheviks, all Russian citizens will consider the basic thesis of yesterday's note a correct one.”

The note caused a spontaneous explosion of popular anger. Rabochaya Gazeta wrote: “Petrograd reacts sensitively and nervously. Everywhere, at street meetings, in trams, passionate, heated disputes over the war take place. The caps and handkerchiefs stand for peace; the derbies and bonnets for war. In the working-class districts and in the barracks, the attitude towards the note is more being expressed against the politics of annexation”. Sukhanov, a Menshevik and perhaps the best reporter of Russian Revolution, recalled vividly that

An immense crowd of workers, some of them armed, was moving towards the Nevsky from the Vyborg Side. There were also a lot of soldiers with them. The demonstrators were marching under the slogans: “Down with the Provisional Government!” Down with Milyukov!” Tremendous excitement reigned generally in the working-class districts, the factories, and the barracks. Many factories were idle. Local meetings were taking place everywhere.

On the night of April 20, the Menshevik leaders of the Soviet asked the government to send a new note correcting Milyukov one in a pacifist way, but in the end they accepted Kerensky's Socialist Revolutionary position that it was enough to offer an “explanation” of the note. Despite that, on April 21 there was a new wave of demonstrations, this time steered and organized by the Bolsheviks. It was the first time since the revolution that Lenin's party was placed at the head and not the tail of the movement. At the same time, on Nevsky Prospekt armed supporters of the government gathered, organized by Kadet Party. According to the April 22 edition of Rabochaya Pravda:

Yesterday on the streets of Petrograd the atmosphere was even more agitated than on April 20. In the [working class] districts a whole series of strikes took place. … The inscriptions on the banners were of a most varied nature, but all the same, one noted a common feature: in the centre, on Nevskii, Sadovaya and others, slogans in support of the Provisional Government predominate; in the outskirts, the opposite. … Clashes between demonstrators of the different groups are frequent. … There are many rumours of shootings.”

A woman who participated in the demonstrations later wrote:

… the women of these mills … moved with the demonstrators onto Nevsky on the odd-numbered side. The other crowd moved in parallel fashion on the even side: well-dressed women, officers, merchants, lawyers, etc. Their slogans were: “Long live the Provisional Government”, “Long live Milyukov”, “Arrest Lenin.”

The tension in the worker neighbourhood escalated. A factory worker described one meeting that afternoon:

The mood wavered … It was decided to wait for a decision from the Soviet. But before that decision could arrive some workers returned from the centre with news of clashes, the tearing of banners and the arrests. … The mood suddenly shifted. ”What? They're chasing us off the streets, tearing our banners, and we're going to watch this quietly from a distance? Let's move to Nevsky!”

In this tense situation, General Kornilov—supported by Milyukov—decided to deploy the artillery outside Mariinsky Palace and to summon the military schools for support. The goal was to connect sections of the army to the armed pro-government rally that was held a few hundred meters away from the Bolshevik-led worker demonstration. Milyukov, in his memoirs, trying to conceal the nature openly counterrevolutionary of the initiative, argues:

On April 21, General Kornilov, the commander-in-chief of the Petrograd district, was informed about the demonstrations from the outskirts of armed workers, and ordered several garrison units to be brought to the Palace Square He ran into the resistance of the Soviet Executive Committee, who told the staff by telephone that the call of troops could complicate the situation. After negotiations with delegates of the Committee… the commander-in-chief cancelled his order and dictated in the presence of the committee members a telephone message to all parts of the garrison troops, with an order to remain in the barracks. After that, an appeal of the Executive Committee posted on the streets announced that: "Comrade soldiers, do not go out with arms in the troubled days without the call of the Executive Committee."

In fact, the Executive Committee of the Soviet—understanding that the counter-revolutionary character of the Kornilov decision threatened to overwhelm them also—gave the order for troops not to leave their barracks. Kornilov found himself isolated and without alternatives other than retreat. The risk for the leaders of the Soviet was a stalemate, so the Executive Committee hastened to declare that the incident with the government was resolved, and asked the workers to go back to their homes. Rabochaya Pravda ironically noted that:

when the Executive Committee published its order to the soldiers not to go into the streets armed, one began to observe curious scenes where soldiers tried to persuade their comrades to refrain in general from participation in the demonstrations, whatever their character. Often the soldiers also appealed to civilians for calm.

Kornilov had assured Milyukov that he had “sufficient forces” to crush the rebels, but these forces never materialized. Trotsky wrote, “This light-mindedness will reach its highest bloom in August, when the conspirator Kornilov will deploy against Petrograd a non-existent army.” On the night of April 21, though some shots could still be heard, the political crisis was over.

Given the balance of power in April 1917, the Bolsheviks were also uninterested in an open battle pushing toward civil war. For the first time the party of Lenin had played an important role in the events, but it was not yet ready to lead the movement towards a new revolution. The soviets were still consolidating and under Menshevik hegemony. For Lenin, a new revolution was still premature, and the slogan supported by some Bolsheviks of "overthrowal of the government" had been wrong:

Should the Provisional Government be overthrown immediately? … To become a power, the class-conscious workers must win the majority to their side. … We are not Blanquists … We are Marxists, we stand for proletarian class struggle against petty-bourgeois intoxication.

The crisis had subsided but nothing was as before. It became clear that no government decision could pass without Soviet agreement. The strategy of Kadets and the capitalist class thereafter shifted to getting the socialists directly involved in the government. The main condition for the involvement of the socialist parties in the cabinet was the removal of Guchkov and Milyukov. After their resignation, the Provisional Government made a proposal to the Petrograd Soviet to form a coalition government. An agreement was reached on April 22, and six socialist ministers joined the cabinet (two Mensheviks, two Social-Revolutionary, two Populists). Only the president of the Executive of the Soviet Nikolay Chkheidze refused to become a minister.

The Bolsheviks also refused to participate and instead prepared themselves for the impending revolutionary struggles. In many ways, the “April Days” strengthened the workers' necessity for their own self-organization and armed force. For example, the Skorokhod Shoe Factory decided to form a Red Guard force of one thousand and asked the Soviet for five hundred rifles and another five hundred revolvers.

On April 23, at a meeting of factory delegates on the organization of Red Guards, one speaker argued that “The Soviet put too much trust in the Kadets. The Soviet doesn't go out into the streets. The Kadets did. Despite the Soviet, the workers went into the street and saved the day.”

The April Days stiffened the resolve of Petrograd workers and soldiers. The Milyukov Kadets were the short-term losers. The Mensheviks and the SRs maintained their control over the Petrograd Soviet, but their confidence was shaken. In the following months, the war and the revolutionary crisis would deepen.

Yurii Colombo is a long-standing socialist activist in Italy and a journalist based in Moscow and Milan. This essay first appeared as part of the Jacobin Magazine series on the Russian Revolution.