Part 1: The matriarch of all insurrections

The Russian Revolution.

Now, a few days after the anniversary of an attempted replication of that revolution, it might be a good thing to review what actually happened in St. Petersburg on October 25, 1917, since it seems to be a instruction manual for American insurrectionists.

As it happens, I’ve begun to read a biography of Lenin, called Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror, by historian Victor Sebestyen.

Sebestyen appeared at a local bookstore a few years ago when the book was first released. I found him to be a disarmingly good-humored guy, given the harsh historical territory he explores and the huge, somewhat monstrous characters he dissects, none of whom was larger and worse than Lenin.

I had just finished two biographies of Trotsky, one of them a memoir by an old friend of my father’s, and was dealing with some reluctance to re-join the Bolsheviks on the written page, given my distaste for their incomprehensible, minutely recorded, jargonized political arguments, as well as their proclivity to murder anyone, including (or especially) their best friends, who came to disagree with them.

So I took up Lenin with some dread.

But Sebestyen more than surprised me. He had me laughing out loud. And since I believe anything that both educates me and causes me merriment should be shared with others, here are some excerpts from Sebestyen on what really happened on October 25, 1917. He begins:

He was fretting about his wig, a wavy silver-grey mop which kept slipping off his shiny bald pate, threatening to spoil his disguise. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known by the pseudonym Lenin — had struggled his entire adult life for this moment. He was on the bring of seizing absolute power in Russia and sparking a revolution that would change the world. But here he was clutching that ridiculous hairpiece, holed up in a pokey second-floor flat in a working-class suburb of Petrograd, while history was being made by others a few kilometres away in the centre of the city.

Lenin was in hiding because his comrades feared he might be assassinated.

It was now the evening of Tuesday the 24th and Vladimir Ilyich had no idea if any of the plans his comrades had made for the insurrection were actually being implemented.

Impatient, Lenin worried that his military committee, few of whom had any fighting experience, would bungle the coup.

Lenin’s “military committee” had not much experience in…being military.

Finally, in his disguise and accompanied by his bodyguard, Lenin left his hiding place. The two men took a tram to the river. They crossed a bridge on foot and continued on their way to the Smolny Institute, a huge building where the revolutionary planners were doing their planning. (The current government, headed by Kerensky, was doing their planning in the Winter Palace.)

At the Smolny:

Young Red Guards stood around outside, ‘a huddled group of boys in workmen’s clothes, carrying guns with bayonets, talking nervously together’, warming their hands around bonfires.

The boys failed to recognize Lenin and Lenin did not have a proper pass to get in; shouting, shoving and pushing ensued. Eventually Lenin managed to enter the revolution, but…

Lenin had never been in the building before and he had no idea where to go. For weeks the Smolny had been packed with soldiers sleeping in the corridors, revolutionary politicians plotting in its warren of 120 rooms and journalists watching the story of the Russian Revolution unfold. The stench was overpowering…Futile signs were posted on the walls: “Comrades please preserve cleanliness.”‘

Does this remind you of…something? Does the “stench” prod your memory?

It has been an enduring myth that the Revolution was an impeccably organised operation by a group of highly disciplined conspirators who knew exactly what they were doing throughout. It is a version of events that suited both sides…

In reality the ‘plot’ was the worst-kept secret in history. Everyone in Petrograd had heard that the Bolsheviks were preparing an imminent coup. It had been discussed in the press for the past ten days. The main right-wing newspaper…had even revealed the date…The supposedly perfect clockwork timekeeping of the insurrection was so vague that nobody could tell for certain exactly when it began. At one stage the Mayor of Petrograd sent a delegation to the participants of both sides wondering if the uprising had started. He could not get an accurate answer...[O]ne of the main Bolshevik commanders on the ground…[had] orders to keep the military planners at the Smolny up to date with events by ringing a number that he was told would always be available…The few times it wasn’t out of order, it was engaged. The Bolsheviks failed to master the Petrograd telephone system and had to send runners throughout the city streets. The key force of sailors from the Kronstadt naval base…arrived in Petrograd a day late…

[The Bolsheviks] won because the other side…a coalition of the centre-right, liberals and moderate socialists…were even more incompetent and divided…But mainly it was because most of the people didn’t care which side won. In fact, few people realised anything significant had happened until it was all over.

It gets even funnier.

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