October Revolution of 1917

October Revolution of 1917 (Zhovtneva revoliutsiia). The Bolshevik coup staged on 25 October (7 November NS) 1917 in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) precipitated a full-scale revolution in Russia and the outlying territories that had formerly constituted parts of its empire. After the fall of the tsarist regime following the February Revolution of 1917 the Provisional Government assumed power. It was unable, however, to control the volatile social and political conditions in the former empire. As their immediate goal the majority of the population wanted Russia to pull out of the First World War. As a broader goal they demanded wide-ranging social reforms and the redistribution of land. The non-Russian peoples of the empire wanted national autonomy and equality. Meanwhile the Bolsheviks and other left-wing groups, whose power base consisted of workers' and soldiers' councils (see Soviet), pressed for a continuation of the revolution. The ineffectiveness and growing unpopularity of the Provisional Government made it feasible for them to consider continuing it through force of arms.

The principal organizer of the October Revolution was the Russian Social Democratic Workers' party (Bolshevik), whose chief ideologue was Vladimir Lenin. On the eve of the revolution Leon Trotsky, the head of the Military Revolutionary Committee of Petrograd, had almost all of the locally stationed troops and a large part of the workers under his control. On the night of 7 November he mounted an armed insurrection and arrested the members of the Provisional Government. The Second All-Russian Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, in which the Bolsheviks had a majority, then announced that the soviets had taken power. They formed the first Soviet government, the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom). It was headed by Lenin, and included Trotsky, Anatolii Lunacharsky, A. Rykov, and Joseph Stalin. The Sovnarkom issued a series of decrees concerning peace, land, the establishment of workers' control, and the nationalization of all heavy industry. It also issued the Declaration on the Rights of the Peoples of Russia on 15 November 1917, in which the equality of all peoples was proclaimed, and in which the ‘right of self-determination, even unto separation’ was formally recognized.

By early 1918 the Bolsheviks had managed to seize power fairly easily in most cities and gubernias of Russia. They attempted to stage a similar coup in Ukraine but found considerably stronger opposition. The support for the Bolsheviks was much weaker there, where there were only 5,000 members of Bolshevik organizations (almost exclusively located in the cities). They consisted primarily of Russian or Russified working-class elements in the Donbas region, Katerynoslav, and Kharkiv. Moreover the Central Rada managed to consolidate its hold on power and on support among the Ukrainian masses through its national and socialist policies.

In the early stages of the October Revolution there was also a third force in Ukraine, the Russian administration of the Provisional Government and the Army Staff of the Kyiv Military District, which supported the Russian administration. Under threat of Russian right-wing elements in Kyiv, the Central Rada, together with socialist groups of national minorities, established the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks initially also participated. The Bolsheviks left to form their own revolutionary committee after the Central Rada refused to recognize the Soviet government in Petrograd. The initial round of fighting between the three forces resulted in a victory for the Central Rada and the proclamation of the Ukrainian National Republic on 20 November 1917.

Although the Bolsheviks' attempts to seize power in Ukraine as a whole failed at first, they managed to gain control of Kharkiv and some Russified cities in the Donbas region through their workers' and soldiers' soviets. They hoped to achieve a formal proclamation of soviet power at an All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies, which they convened on 17–19 December in Kyiv. The peasant-dominated congress failed to support the Bolsheviks (fewer than 100 of the more than 2,000 delegates were Bolshevik supporters), however, and even gave the Central Rada a vote of confidence. The pro-Bolshevik delegates reconvened a week later in Kharkiv at an All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets that included a greater number of deputies from the Donbas and Kryvyi Rih regions. On 25 December 1917 that congress proclaimed Soviet rule in Ukraine and elected a central executive committee of Ukraine and a government body, the People's Secretariat. That body contended for legitimacy with the Central Rada and the General Secretariat of the Central Rada.

The creation of a rival Soviet government in Ukraine made it possible for the subsequent armed intervention by Bolshevik troops from Russia during the Ukrainian-Soviet War, 1917–21 to be presented as a class rather than a national struggle. It also marked an important turning point in Ukraine's struggle for independence (1917–20), as the Bolsheviks demonstrated their willingness to force their state structure onto Ukraine in spite of the almost total absence of popular support.

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Antonov-Ovseenko, V. Zapiski o grazhdanskoi voine, 4 vols (Moscow 1924–33)
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Musiienko, V. Bil'shovyky Ukraïny v Zhovtnevii revoliutsiï (Kyiv 1976)
Borys, J. The Sovietization of Ukraine, 1917–1923: The Communist Doctrine and Practice of National Self-Determination, rev edn (Edmonton 1980)

Vsevolod Holubnychy

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3 (1993).]

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