The fact is, the Kerensky government could barely control the city; major state buildings, like the Winter Palace or the telegraph building, did not even have decent security. It took only one night for Bolshevik Leon Trotsky to convince the soldiers at the Peter and Paul Fortress to join his side. On the morning of 25 October, the Bolsheviks brought an ultimatum from the fortress to the Winter Palace, the seat of power. The government, such as it was, simply ran away. At 10 in the morning, posters went up around the city announcing the overthrow of the Provisional Government. It was only toward evening that the city heard shots from near the fortress, followed by shouts of “Hoorah!”
At first, that was more or less it. The takeover of the Winter Palace, which the Bolsheviks later depicted as a glorious battle (perhaps most famously in Sergey Eisenstein’s film October), resulted in the deaths of only two soldiers and one sailor. After the fact, Kerensky tried to create some form of military force, but failed. Soldiers were still under the spell of Romanov wine, and had little wish to fight. Even American correspondent John Reed, whose Bolshevik sympathies informed his book ‘Ten Days That Shook the World,’ didn’t disguise the chaos of the event.
Pacifism Against the Bolsheviks
In Ukraine, the situation leading up to October was even more chaotic. The year of the revolution, the February overthrow of the Russian Emperor inspired national movements across the former empire. Unlike in other regions, which created more or less unified governing organs, power in Ukraine split among three groups: the Provisional Government in Petrograd, which didn’t want to lose control of the strategically important Ukraine; the Russian Council of Working Deputies, which supported class and social justice; and the Tsentralna Rada government in Kyiv, which was formed in March 1917 with the great liberal nationalist historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky at its head and that more or less ran things. This three-way division rendered the country politically and socially unstable.
One aspect to the problem was demographic. Ukraine at the time had distinct social groups, each with their own political goals: the intelligentsia was liberal and democratic; certain groups in Kyiv and Lviv were nationalistic; and working people in industrial centres were inclined toward socialism (though not all supported the Bolsheviks). Support for the parties split along ethnic lines as well. According to the 1917 census, of the 470,000 people in the city, nearly half were Russian, and they naturally didn’t support the nationalist rhetoric of Hrushevsky’s Rada. After Ukrainians and Russians, the third significant ethnic group was Poles, followed by Jews, both of whom were active in the trade and service sectors.
Perhaps surprisingly, the events in Petrograd caused remarkably little immediate stir. The Kyiv activist Goldenveyzer, whose memoirs recorded the events in the city, reported only a minor skirmish with Ukrainian Bolsheviks near Arsenal. There was a political response, however. In November 1917, the Rada drafted the Third Universal, which stated that the Ukrainian People’s Republic was an entity within Russia. The idea of an independent Ukraine had yet to come to full fruition; for the moment, Hrushevsky envisioned a free state in close partnership and friendship with Russia. The Rada’s leadership was also firmly pacifist, and therefore failed to form a national army despite Bolshevik uprisings across the country’s east. Red forces even attempted an attack on Kyiv later that November. Though Skoropadsky’s corps repelled the attack, the Rada refused its leader’s – Pavlo Skoropadsky’s – request for provisions and warm clothes, and that winter the corps disbanded. When the Bolsheviks came again in January 1918, only Simon Petlyura’s thinned-out corps and 300 students remained to resist. Those students made a heroic stand at the Battle of Kruty, holding 4,000 Bolsheviks at bay for five hours. But the effort was doomed. Simultaneously, in the city, Bolsheviks revolted, seizing the Arsenal arms factory, which still stands across the street from the metro station Arsenalna. On February 9, Hrushevsky’s government was forced to flee the city, releasing before they left the Fourth Universal, which declared Ukraine independent and Hrushevsky president. The war with the Red Army continued for some years, but eventually, needless to say, the Soviets won.
Today, it seems fair to say that the October Revolution was a good chance for Ukraine to build an independent state. The failure to do so lay in the disunity of Ukrainian leadership. If they had been more pragmatic, and had Skoropadsky, Petlyura and other militias joined together to fight the Bolsheviks, the outcome of the events may have been different.
The Contemporary View
I hit the streets of Kyiv to ask modern Ukrainians what the October Revolution meant to them. The results were predictable. A babushka on Khreschatyk rhapsodised over the Communist past; a young Ukrainian passionately said “it was the beginning of a 70-year nightmare for Ukraine.” For my parents’ generation, the revolution recalls obligatory parades with red flags and a festive dinner with ‘Olivier’ salad and alcohol. The people with the most interesting responses were teenagers born in independent Ukraine. They learned history untainted by Communist ideology, and for them the words ‘October Revolution’ mean nothing. They have no memories or associations, no hate or sympathy. Theirs is the generation that can treat that history merely as history; they carry with them very little of the bankrupt past and are open to the future.
In my eyes, the October Revolution was a test for Ukraine, one that has relevance today. Modern politicians still don’t seem to understand the price of their rivalry, which seems to view our state as an easy way to turn a profit. Not long ago I saw in the supermarket a type of candy called Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) on sale for 26 hryvnia, and it made me think: The cost of Soviet nostalgia seems a little too high for our pensioners, and for Ukraine as a whole.