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Lenin and the October Coup

The Kornilov Affair reinforced the popular belief in a 'counter-revolutionary' threat against the Soviet - a threat the Bolsheviks would invoke to mobilize the Red Guards and other militants in October. In this sense the Kornilov Affair was a dress rehearsal for the Bolshevik seizure of power. It reinforced Lenin's conviction that the 'proletariat' needed to engage in a civil war against the 'military dictatorship' which would take power if the Bolsheviks did not.

Lenin called for an armed insurrection. Writing from Finland, where he had fled to avoid arrest following the failed uprising in July he told the Bolshevik leaders that they 'can and must take state power into their own hands.' The Central Committee ignored Lenin's instructions. It resolved to wait until the Second All-Russian Soviet Congress, due to convene on 20 October, for the transfer of power to Soviets.

Lenin bombarded the Central Committee with a barrage of impatient letters, urging them to start an armed insurrection at once - before the Soviet Congress. 'If we "wait" for the Congress of Soviets', Lenin wrote on 29 September, 'we shall ruin the revolution.' His impatience was political. If the transfer of power took place by a vote of the Congress, the result would almost certainly be a coalition government made up of all the Soviet parties.

Running out of patience, Lenin returned to Petrograd and convened a secret meeting of the Central Committee on 10 October at which he forced through a decision (by ten votes against two) to prepare an uprising. When it would take place was not yet clear. A meeting of the Central Committee on 16 October was told by the Bolshevik Military Organization and other activists that the soldiers and workers of Petrograd would not come out on the Party's call alone and 'would have to be stung by something, such as the break-up of the garrison, to support an uprising.'

But Lenin was insistent on the need for immediate preparations and discounted the cautious mood of the Petrograd masses: in a coup d'état, which is how he conceived the seizure of power, only a small force was needed, provided it was well armed and disciplined enough. He won a vote in the Central Committee. Two days later, Kamenev and Zinoviev resigned from the Central Committee and publicized their opposition to an uprising.

With the Bolshevik conspiracy public knowledge, the Soviet leaders resolved to delay the Soviet Congress until 25 October. They needed more time to muster their supporters from the provinces. But the delay fuelled suspicions that the Congress would not be allowed to meet at all.

Rumours of a 'counter-revolution' were strengthened when Kerensky foolishly announced his plans to transfer the bulk of the Petrograd garrison to the Northern Front. It was to prevent the garrison's removal that the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) - the leading organizational force of the Bolshevik uprising - was formed on 20 October.

By 24 October the MRC had assumed control of the Petrograd garrison. Soldiers and Red Guards occupied the streets to defend the Soviet. Even at this point, late in the evening of the 24th, there were still no plans for the overthrow of the Provisional Government. Lenin's intervention was decisive. Disguised in a wig, he left his hiding place and made his way to the Smolny Institute to order the uprising to begin.

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