My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 27

The Deciding Night

The twelfth hour of the revolution was near. The Smolny was being transformed into a fortress. In its garret there were a dozen or two machine-guns, a legacy from the old Executive Committee. Captain Grekov, commandant of the Smolny, was an undisguised enemy. On the other hand, the chief of the machine-gun company came to tell me that his men were all on the side of the Bolsheviks. I instructed some one perhaps Markin to inspect the machine-guns. They proved to be in poor condition as a result of continuous neglect — the soldiers had grown slack because they had no intention of defending Kerensky. I had a new and more reliable machine-gun detachment brought to the Smolny.

October 24 1, a gray morning, early. I roamed about the building from one floor to another, partly for the sake of movement and partly to make sure that everything was in order and to encourage those who needed it. Along the stone floors of the interminable and still half-dark corridors of the Smolny, the soldiers were dragging their machine-guns, with a hearty clangor and tramping of feet — this was the new detachment I had summoned. The few Socialist-Revolutionists and Mensheviks still in the Smolny could be seen poking sleepy, frightened faces out at us. The music of the guns was ominous in their ears, and they left the Smolny in a hurry, one after the other. We were now in full command of the building that was preparing to rear a Bolshevist head over the city and the country.

Early in the morning, two workers, a man and a woman, panting after their run from the party printing-works, bumped into me on the staircase. The government had closed down the central organ of the party and the paper of the Petrograd Soviet. Government agents, accompanied by military students, had put seals on the printing-works. For a moment the news startled us; such is the power exercised over the mind by legal formality.

“Couldn’t we break the seals?” the woman asked.

“Break them,” I answered, “and to make it safe for you we will give you a dependable escort.”

“There is a battalion of sappers next door to us; the soldiers are sure to back us,” said the woman printer, confidently.

The Military-Revolutionary Committee immediately issued an order: “(1) The printing-works of revolutionary newspapers to be reopened. (2) The editorial staffs and compositors to be invited to continue publishing the papers. (3) The honorary duty of protecting the revolutionary printing-works from counter revolutionary attacks to be intrusted to the gallant soldiers of the Litovsky regiment and the Sixth Sapper Reserve Battalion.” And from that time on, the printing-works ran without interruption, and both newspapers continued publication.

On the 24th, there was difficulty at the telephone exchange. Military students had intrenched themselves there, and under their protection the telephone operators went into opposition to the Soviet and refused to make our connections. This was the first, sporadic instance of sabotage. The Military-Revolutionary Committee sent a detachment of sailors to the telephone exchange, and the detachment placed two small guns at the entrance. The telephone service was restored. Thus began the taking over of the organs of administration.

On the third floor of the Smolny, in a small corner room, the Committee was in continuous session. All the reports about the movements of troops, the attitude of soldiers and workers, the agitation in the barracks, the designs of organizers of pogroms, the intrigues of the bourgeois politicians and the foreign embassies, the happenings in the Winter Palace all these came to this centre, as did the reports of the conferences of the parties formerly in the Soviet. Informants came from all sides workers, soldiers, officers, porters, socialist military students, servants, wives of petty officials. Many of them told us utter rubbish, but some supplied us with serious and very valuable information.

All that week I had hardly stepped out of the Smolny; I spent the nights on a leather couch without undressing, sleeping in snatches, and constantly being roused by couriers, scouts, messenger-cyclists, telegraphists, and ceaseless telephone calls. The decisive moment was close at hand. It was obvious that there could now be no turning back.

On the night of the 24th, the members of the Revolutionary Committee went out into the various districts, and I was left alone. Later on, Kamenev came in. He was opposed to the uprising, but he had come to spend that deciding night with me, and together we stayed in the tiny corner room on the third floor, so like the captain’s bridge on that deciding night of the revolution.

There is a telephone booth in the large empty room adjoining us, and the bell rings incessantly about important things and trifles. Each ring heightens the alertness of the silence. One can readily picture the deserted streets of Petrograd, dimly lit, and whipped by the autumn winds from the sea; the bourgeois and officials cowering in their beds, trying to guess what is going on in those dangerous and mysterious streets; the workers’ quarters quiet with the tense sleep of a war-camp. Commissions and conferences of the government parties are exhausting themselves in impotence in the Czar’s palaces, where the living ghosts of democracy rub shoulders with the still hovering ghosts of the monarchy. Now and again the silks and gildings of the halls are plunged into darkness the supplies of coal have run short. In the various districts, detachments of workers, soldiers, and sail ors are keeping watch. The young proletarians have rifles and machine-gun belts across their shoulders. Street pickets are warming themselves at fires in the streets. The life of the capital, thrusting its head from one epoch into another on this autumn night, is concentrated about a group of telephones.

Reports from all the districts, suburbs, and approaches to the capital are focussed in the room on the third floor. It seems that everything has been foreseen; the leaders are in their places; the contacts are assured; nothing seems to have been forgotten.

Once more, let us go over it in our minds. This night decides. Only this evening, in my report to the delegates of the second congress of the Soviets, I said with conviction: “If you stand firm, there will be no civil war, our enemies will capitulate at once, and you will take the place that belongs to you by right.” There can be no doubt about victory; it is as assured as the victory of any uprising can be. And yet, these hours are still tense and full of alarm, for the coming night decides. The government, while mobilizing cadets yesterday, gave orders to the cruiser Aurora to steam out of the Neva. They were the same Bolshevik sailors whom Skobelev, coming hat in hand, in August begged to protect the Winter Palace from Kornilov. The sailors referred to the Military-Revolutionary Committee for instructions, and consequently the Aurora is standing tonight where she was yesterday. A telephone call from Pavlovsk informs me that the government is bringing up from there a detachment of artillery, a battalion of shock troops from Tsarskoye Syelo, and student-officers from the Peterhof military school. Into the Winter Palace Kerensky has drawn military students, officers, and the women shock troops. I order the commissaries to place dependable military defenses along the approaches to Petrograd and to send agitators to meet the detachments called out by the government. All our instructions and reports are sent by telephone and the government agents are in a position to intercept them. But can they still control our communications?

“If you fail to stop them with words, use arms. You will answer for this with your life.”

I repeat this sentence time and time again. But I do not yet believe in the force of my order. The revolution is still too trusting, too generous, optimistic and light-hearted. It prefers to threaten with arms rather than really use them. It still hopes that all questions can be solved by words, and so far it has been successful in this hostile elements evaporate before its hot breath. Earlier in the day (the 24th) an order was issued to use arms and to stop at nothing at the first sign of street pogroms. Our enemies don’t even dare think of the streets; they have gone into hiding. The streets are ours; our commissaries are watching all the approaches to Petrograd. The officers’ school and the gunners have not responded to the call of the government. Only a section of the Oraniembaum military students have succeeded in making their way through our defenses, but I have been watching their movements by telephone. They end by sending envoys to the Smolny. The government has been seeking support in vain. The ground is slipping from under its feet.

The outer guard of the Smolny has been reinforced by a new machine-gun detachment. The contact with all sections of the garrison is uninterrupted. The companies on duty are on watch in all the regiments. The commissaries are in their places. Delegations from each garrison unit are in the Smolny, at the disposal of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, to be used in case the contact with that unit should be broken off. Armed detachments from the districts march along the streets, ring the bells at the gates or open the gates without ringing, and take possession of one institution after another. Nearly everywhere these detachments are met by friends who have been waiting impatiently for them. At the railway terminals, specially appointed commissaries are watching the incoming and outgoing trains, and in particular the movement of troops. No disturbing news comes from there. All the more important points in the city are given over into our hands almost without resistance, without fighting, without casualties. The telephone alone informs us: “We are here!”

All is well. It could not have gone better. Now I may leave the telephone. I sit down on the couch. The nervous tension lessens. A dull sensation of fatigue comes over me.

“Give me a cigarette,” I say to Kamenev. (In those years I still smoked, but only spasmodically.) I take one or two puffs, but suddenly, with the words, “Only this was lacking!” I faint. (I inherited from my mother a certain susceptibility to fainting spells when suffering from physical pain or illness. That was why some American physician described me as an epileptic.) As I come to, I see Kamenev’s frightened face bending over me.

“Shall I get some medicine?” he asks.

“It would be much better,” I answer after a moment’s reflection, “if you got something to eat.” I try to remember when I last had food, but I can’t. At all events, it was not yesterday.

Next morning I pounced upon the bourgeois and Menshevik-Populist papers. They had not even a word about the uprising. The newspapers had been making such a to-do about the coming action by armed soldiers, about the sacking, the inevitable rivers of blood, about an insurrection, that now they simply had failed to notice an uprising that was actually taking place. The press was taking our negotiations with the general staff at their face value, and our diplomatic statements as signs of vacillation. In the meantime, without confusion, without street-fights, almost without firing or bloodshed, one institution after another was being occupied by detachments of soldiers, sailors, and the Red Guards, on orders issuing from the Smolny Institute.

The citizen of Petrograd was rubbing his frightened eyes under a new regime. Was it really possible that the Bolsheviks had seized the power? A delegation from the municipal Duma called to see me, and asked me a few inimitable questions. “Do you propose military action? If so, what, and when?” The Duma would have to know of this “not less than twenty-four hours in advance.” What measures had the Soviet taken to insure safety and order? And so on, and so forth.

I replied by expounding the dialectic view of the revolution, and invited the Duma to send a delegate to the Military-Revolutionary Committee to take part in its work. This scared them more than the uprising itself. I ended, as usual, in the spirit of armed self-defense: “If the government uses iron, it will be answered with steel.”

“Will you dissolve us for being opposed to the transfer of power to the Soviets?”

I replied: “The present Duma reflects yesterday: if a conflict arises, we will propose to the people that they elect a new Duma on the issue of power.” The delegation left as it had come, but it left behind it the feeling of an assured victory. Something had changed during the night. Three weeks ago we had gained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. We were hardly more than a banner with no printing-works, no funds, no branches. No longer ago than last night, the government ordered the arrest of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, and was engaged in tracing our addresses. To-day a delegation from the city Duma comes to the “arrested” Military-Revolutionary Committee to inquire about the fate of the Duma.

The government was still in session at the Winter Palace, but it was no more than a shadow. Politically, it had ceased to exist. During the day of the 25th, the Winter Palace was being surrounded on all sides by our troops. At one o’clock midday, I made a statement of the situation to the Petrograd Soviet. The newspaper account reports it as follows: “On behalf of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional government is no longer existent. [Applause] Some ministers have been arrested. [‘Bravo.’] Others will be arrested in the course of a few days or hours. [Applause] The revolutionary garrison, at the disposal of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, has dissolved the session of the Pre-parliament. [Loud applause] We have been on the watch here throughout the night and have followed the detachments of revolutionary soldiers and the workers’ guards by telephone as they silently carried out their tasks. The citizen slept in peace, ignorant of the change from one power to another. Railway-stations, the post-office, the telegraph, the Petrograd Telegraph Agency, the State Bank, have been occupied. [Loud applause] The Winter Palace has not yet been taken, but its fate will be decided during the next few minutes. [Applause]”

This bare account may give a wrong impression of the mood of the gathering. My memory supplies these particulars. When I reported the change of power effected during the night, there was tense silence for a few seconds. Then applause began, a not very stormy, rather thoughtful applause. The assembly was feeling intensely and waiting. While they were preparing for the struggle, the working class had been seized by an indescribable enthusiasm, but when we stepped over the threshold of power, this unthinking enthusiasm gave way to a disturbed thoughtfulness. A sure historical instinct revealed itself here. Ahead of us there was probably the greatest resistance from the old world; there were struggle, starvation, cold, destruction, blood and death. “Will we overcome all this?” many asked themselves. That was the cause of the moments of disturbed reflection. “We will overcome it l” they all answered. New dangers were looming in the far distance. But now we felt a sense of a great victory, and it sang in our blood. It found its expression in the tumultuous welcome accorded to Lenin, who at that meeting made his first appearance after a four months’ absence.

Late that evening, as we were waiting for the opening of the congress of the Soviets, Lenin and I were resting in a room adjoining the meeting-hall, a room entirely empty except for chairs. Some one had spread a blanket on the floor for us; some one else, I think it was Lenin’s sister, had brought us pillows. We were lying side by side; body and soul were relaxing like overtaut strings. It was a well-earned rest. We could not sleep, so we talked in low voices. Only now did Lenin become reconciled to the postponement of the uprising. His fears had been dispelled. There was a rare sincerity in his voice. He was interested in knowing all about the mixed pickets of the Red Guards, sailors, and soldiers that had been stationed everywhere. “What a wonderful sight: a worker with a rifle, side by side with a soldier, standing before a street fire!” he repeated with deep feeling. At last the soldier and the worker had been brought together!

Then he started suddenly. “And what about the Winter Palace? It has not been taken yet. Isn’t there danger in that?” I got up to ask, on the telephone, about the progress of the operations there, but he tried to stop me. “Lie still, I will send some one to find out.” But we could not rest for long. The session of the congress of the Soviets was opening in the next hall. Ulyanova, Lenin’s sister, came running to get me.

“Dan is speaking. They are asking for you.”

In a voice that was breaking repeatedly, Dan was railing at the conspirators and prophesying the inevitable collapse of the uprising. He demanded that we form a coalition with the Socialist-Revolutionists and the Mensheviks. The parties that had been in power only the day before, that had hounded us and thrown us into prison, now that we had overthrown them were demanding that we come to an agreement with them.

I replied to Dan and, in him, to the yesterday of the revolution: “What has taken place is an uprising, not a conspiracy. An uprising of the masses of the people needs no justification. We have been strengthening the revolutionary energy of the workers and soldiers. We have been forging, openly, the will of the masses for an uprising. Our uprising has won. And now we are being asked to give up our victory, to come to an agreement. With whom? You are wretched, disunited individuals; you are bankrupts; your part is over. Go to the place where you belong from now on the dust-bin of history!”

This was the last retort in that long dialogue that had begun on April 3, with the day and hour of Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd.

1. By the Julian calendar which at the time was still the official calendar in Russia; November 6, by the calendar used in the rest of Europe. This accounts for the revolution being called sometimes the October, sometimes the November revolution. — L.D. Trotsky

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05