The Role of the Military in the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution’s success wouldn’t have happened without the mutiny of a class conscious army. 


The outcome of the Russian revolution owed as much of its success to the soldiers and sailors of the military as it did to the urban proletariat. In 1917, Europe was in its third year of war, and Russia had suffered heavy losses, with  about 5,700,000 casualties by the end of 1916. Years of war weariness had drained the military of its morale, along with its willingness to defend the Czar. There was a desire among both the public and the soldiers to change conditions on the front and to bring an end to the war. Soldiers provided an impetus to the revolution, and were willing to fight for and defend it, as they viewed it as an “implicit promise that the war would soon end.” (Fitzpatrick 52). Part of the reason for the soldiers’ support for the revolution, was how they were perceived in society. Rather than being seen as a separate or hostile class, soldiers and sailors were thought of as part of the working class, and would identify their own interests with it, rather than that of their officers, who they saw as inextricably linked with the ruling class. “Traditionally, Russia’s soldiers and sailors of 1917 have been categorized as ‘proletarians’, regardless of their occupation out of uniform…It can be argued in Marxist terms that the men in the armed forces were proletarian by virtue of their current occupation, but the more important thing is that this is evidently how they regarded themselves. Importantly, they also “…saw the officers and the Provisional Government as belonging to one class, that of the ‘masters’, and identified their own interests with those of the workers and the Petrograd Soviet.” (Fitzpatrick 53).  This would prove to be a decisive factor in the February revolution, as it was the experience of being ordered to fire on peaceful demonstrators that would initially radicalize many of the soldiers. Furthermore, a major concern of the Czar’s Generals, and a decisive element in their decision to advise the Czar to abdicate, was fear that the use of the military to further suppress the revolution would only lead to further radicalization of the army.

In the months between February and October, the soldiers would go from the stance of Revolutionary Defensism, as espoused by the moderate socialists, to a more radical one, upon realizing that the Provisional Government would no more to address its concerns than would the monarchy. The October Revolution would proceed with assistance from pro-revolutionary soldiers, organized and directed by the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee. The failure of both the Czarist government, and the Provisional Government to address the concerns the soldiers; primarily their desire to end the war, and protect the revolution, would result in the collapse of both. Radical socialists, namely the Bolsheviks, as the only party to have both consistently opposed the government and defend the demands of the proletariat and the soldiers and sailors, would ultimately reap the benefits.

The most immediate cause of the February Revolution was the demand for bread and political rights by women demonstrating for International Women’s Day. They were soon joined by women textile workers, and then men from nearby steel factories. As the crowds grew larger, demonstrators began to clash with the police. Notably, the crowds were hostile towards police and symbols of the Czar, yet they attempted to win over soldiers to their side. “Increasingly this became the pattern — violent clashes with the police combined with efforts to win over the soldiers — as the crowds took over the city centre. The police were ‘theirs’ — hated agents of the regime. The people called them ‘pharaohs’ (much as some today might call the police ‘pigs’) and they had no doubts that the police would fight to the end. The soldiers, by contrast, were seen as ‘ours’ — peasants and workers in uniforms — and it was hoped that, if they were ordered to use force against the crowds, they would be as likely to come over to the people’s side. Once it became clear that this was so — from the soldiers’ hesitation to disperse the demonstrators, from the expressions on the soldiers’ faces, and from the odd wink by a soldier to the crowd — the initiative passed to the people’s side. It was a crucial psychological moment in the revolution.”  (Figes 305).

Although becoming radical on their own, these demonstrations may not have gone as far as they did had it not been for the soldiers and sailors. The breaking point was reached when the Czar ordered that the demonstrators be put down by force.  This act would go on to break the remaining discipline among the soldiers, along with their loyalty to the regime.“Having been informed of the situation at his headquarters in Mogilev, he sent a cable to General Khabalov, Chief of the Petrograd Military District, ordering him to use military force to ‘put down the disorders by tomorrow’. There could be no better illustration of the extent to which the Tsar had lost touch with reality. Nor could there be any better guarantee of a revolution.”  (Figes 307)

On Sunday, the 26th, Police and soldiers fired upon marching workers, sparking the catalyst for the revolution. “But around midday huge crowds of workers once again assembled in the suburbs and marched towards the city centre. As they converged on the Nevsky Prospekt, the police and soldiers fired upon them from several different points…On the Nevsky, near the Gostiny Dvor, a training detachment of the Pavlovsky Regiment shot a round of blanks and then opened fire on the crowd. The people scattered behind buildings and into shops, re-emerging moments later to throw bricks and pieces of ice at the troops. Dozens of people were wounded or killed. The bloodiest incident took place on Znamenskaya Square, where more than fifty people were shot dead by a training detachment of the Volynsky Regiment…

…This shedding of blood — Russia’s second Bloody Sunday — proved a critical turning point. From this moment on the demonstrators knew that they were involved in a life-or-death struggle against the regime. Paradoxically, now that the worst had happened and some of their comrades had been killed, they felt less afraid for their own lives.  As for the soldiers, they were now confronted with a choice between their moral duty to the people and their oath of allegiance to the Tsar. If they followed the former, a full-scale revolution would occur. But if they stuck to their oath of allegiance, then the regime might still manage to survive, as it had done in 1905—6. (Figes 304)

The response to the massacre was for the soldiers to mutiny. Afterwards, soldiers returned to the barracks, and questioned what had gone on. Recognizing their own interests as bound up with the revolutionary masses, rather than their officers, the mutinies spread.  “After the shooting on the Nevsky Prospekt an angry crowd of demonstrators broke into the barracks of the Pavlovsky Regiment near the Mars Field and shouted at the soldiers that some of their trainees had been firing at the people. Visibly shaken by the news, the 4th Company of the Pavlovskys resolved to march to the Nevsky at once in order to stop the massacre. ‘They are shooting at our mothers and our sisters!’ was their rallying cry as they mutinied. About a hundred soldiers broke into the arsenal of the barracks and, taking thirty rifles, began to march towards the Nevsky. Almost immediately, they ran into a mounted police patrol on the bank of the Griboyedov Canal. They fired at them, killing one policeman, until they ran out of cartridges, whereupon they decided to return to barracks to bring out the rest of the men. (Figes 308).

“At this stage, the soldiers did not intend a full-scale mutiny, only a vocal and abusive protest against their officer for having ordered them to fire on the crowds, and a refusal to obey his commands. But when the officer found himself confronted by his angry men he made the fatal error of walking away — and then, even worse, of starting to run across the barracks yard. Sensing their power over him, the soldiers pointed their rifles towards him, and one of them shot him in the back. Suddenly the soldiers were mutineers. They scattered through the barracks, in panic as much as revolutionary fervour, calling on the other soldiers to join their mutiny…Fights broke out between loyal and rebel soldiers. The victorious mutineers stormed the regimental arsenals, killed several of their officers and spilled in their thousands on to the streets, where they spread out in all directions…(Figes 308). From this point forward, there was no going back. Soldiers were no longer willing to fight for the Czar, nor take orders from their former officers who represented him.

In order to represent their political interests, soldiers formed their own organizations.  The most basic and most important of these were soldiers’ committees. These would act as their primary political policy body, used from interpreting events, to passing resolutions, to carrying out educational activities. They acted as channels of information, and were used to communicate between the soldiers and the soviets, and even became agents through which soldiers challenged the authority of their officers. Sailors would have similar organizations with their ship, base, and fleet committees. Urban Soviets were also used to express the soldiers’ aspirations. Most cities and towns contained army garrisons, and soviets provided a means for soldiers  to unify into citywide organizations. (Wade34).

Mutinous troops not only provided a psychological and morale boost, but also much needed organization and tactics. “The mutiny of the Petrograd garrison turned the disorders of the previous four days into a full-scale revolution. The tsarist authorities were virtually deprived of military power in the capital. ‘It had now become clear to me’, Balk later wrote of the 27th, ‘that we had lost all authority.’ The spilling of the soldiers on to the streets, moreover, gave a military strength and organization to the revolutionary crowds. Instead of vague and aimless protest they focused on the capture of strategic targets and the armed struggle against the regime…They spread the mutiny to the remaining barracks…Thanks to the soldiers and officers like Linde, the first signs of real organization — armed pickets on the bridges and major intersections, barricades, field-telephones and structures of command — began to appear on the streets. Many of the soldiers were also kept busy by the task of arresting — and sometimes beating up or even murdering — their commanding officers. This was a revolution in the ranks.13”. (Figes 332) On March 2nd, Czar Nicholas was finally forced to abdicate, deciding to do so upon the advice of his military chiefs, who felt they could no longer control the army, and were afraid that any attempt to use the army to attack the revolutionary Petrograd would result in further mutinies. The Czars route home had to be rerouted several times due to revolutionary troops. News of the Czar’s abdication sparked celebrations throughout Russia. The troops were no exception, some even going as far to renounce “their hard-won tsarist medals, and often sent them to the Petrograd Soviet so that it could melt them down and put the silver to the use of the people’s cause.”  “The soldiers in the trenches were equally ecstatic, despite the initial confusion caused by the efforts of the officers to withhold the news from the capital. Red flags were raised in the trenches and red ribbons tied to the military trucks, pieces of artillery and the horses. There were parades to celebrate the revolution, military bands played the Marseillaise and soldiers wildly threw their caps into the air. On the naval ships there was a similar outburst of emotion. The red flag was raised on battleships ‘as an emblem’, in the words of the Helsingfors sailors, ‘of our freedom and our unity’.58 (Figes 336-338).

The political vacuum created after the Czar’s abdication left Petrograd in a state of “dual power”. The Provisional government on the one hand, had been created by liberal politicians of the Duma. Headed by Prince Lvov and Alexander Kerensky, it would come to represent “legal”  or “official” authority, and therefore responsibility, while  Its rival, the Petrograd Soviet, formed by Mensheviks and other socialists, was, due its support by the industrial working class and soldiers, the de facto power in Petrograd, although it had, no official or legal governing responsibility. Of the 3,000 delegates, more than two-thirds were serviceman, in a city where workers outnumbered soldiers 3 or 4 to 1. In fact, the military played such a crucial role in the formation of the soviet, that within a few days the name was unanimously changed to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers Deputies.

The soviet’s first order of business was to issue Order No. 1, a document that radically altered the structure of the army. Three major changes emerged as a result, namely: “First, it ordered the immediate formation of committees of elected representatives from the lower ranks. This quickly resulted in a network of committees throughout the entire army and navy paralleling the military command structure, from the smallest unit through regiments and armies to whole fronts, from ship committees to fleet committees. These committees gave soldiers a vehicle for challenging officer authority, changing the military system, and looking after their own interests. Second, it fundamentally altered the personal relationship between officers and men. The order forbad the use of coarse and derogatory language by officers toward soldiers and the use of honorific tities for officers. Both were standard in the Russian army. Other changes in permitted behavior by officers and soldiers reflected the soldiers’ determination to assert their personal dignity and their political and civil rights. These provisions reflected the deep social tension between the educated classes—noble and non-noble—who made up most of the officer corps and the peasant and urban lower classes who made up the rank and file soldiers. As one officer wrote, “Between us and them is an impassable gulf… [and] in their eyes we are all barins [lords]… In their eyes what has occurred is not a political but a social revolution, which in their opinion they have won and we have lost.”^ Socialist agitation reinforced this perception. Third, Order No. 1 solidified the loyalty of the soldiers to the Soviet, setting a pattern of primary loyalty to the Soviet and only conditional support for the government. Social-political affinities would have brought the soldiers under Soviet influence in time, but Order No. 1 hastened the process. As a result, the soviets now held, in fact if not theory, the preponderance of armed coercion in Petrograd and soon in the country.”(Wade 33). The practical effect of Order No. 1. was the democratization of the army, and the establishment the Petrograd Soviet as the de facto power, securing the loyalty of the revolutionary soldiers. “Order No. I therefore had strong overtones of class war, and totally failed to offer reassurance about the prospects for class co-operation. It presaged the most unworkable form of dual power, that is, a situation in which the enlisted men in the armed forces recognized only the authority of the Petrograd Soviet, while the officer corps recognized only the authority of the Provisional Government.” (Fitzpatrick 48).

Support for the Provisional Government, and even the moderate socialist leaders of the Soviet, would eventually wane in favor of the more radical Left SRs and Bolsheviks, as actions taken by The Provisional Government throughout the summer would cause soldiers to become increasingly radicalized. Trouble started almost immediately over the issue of the war, when, in April, attempts to defend a policy of ‘war to victory’ by Paul Miliukov, the foreign minister and Kadet leader led to massive street demonstrations and armed clashes. Known as the April Crisis, it led to the first of many restructurings of the Provisional Goverment, and the formation of the “coalition government” between socialists and liberals. (Wade 14).

Having failed to find a way to bring an end to the war, In June, in an effort to raise morale among the troops, Kerensky ordered an offensive on the Galician front, the first serious military undertaking since the February Revolution. Rather than accomplish its goal, the Kerensky offensive had the opposite effect, ending in utter disaster with 200,000 casualties, destroying what was left of morale, and further alienating the military from the Provisional Government. Desertion within the army grew, and the Offensive resulted in governmental crisis, prompting the resignation of key members, such as Prince Lvov, the head of the Provisional Government at the time.

By late summer, it was clear that basic aspirations of most groups were not being met. Most importantly, especially for the soldiers, was the issue of the war. The moderate socialist plan of Revolutionary Defensism, or for ending the war by a negotiated peace, while defending the gains of the revolution,  had failed by midsummer. The provisional government had no plan for getting Russia out of war, and in fact continued to work with the Allied Leadership. As war continued to place enormous stress on the economy, the population increasingly demanded peace. Meanwhile, the government was criticized for this by radicals, including Bolsheviks, Left SRs, and Anarchists. (Wade 44).

In the early weeks of July, in the immediate fallout of this crisis, an attempt by the Provisional Government to send troops to the front, resulted in rioting and demonstrations in Petrograd, in events known as the July days. Half a million Kronstadt sailors, soldiers, and workers, some led by local and low level Bolsheviks, marched through the streets of Petrograd, demanding Soviet power. Unfortunately, both the Moderate Socialists who headed the Pertrograd Soviet, as well as the Bolshevik leadership were unprepared, and the demonstrations degenerated into widespread drinking and looting, before finally dispersing (Fitzpatrick 28). The Bolsheviks failure to act at a time when soviet power was being demanded would cause them to temporarily lose popularity. The soldiers, sailors, and workers had shown they were ready for a transfer of power, and even for insurrection, but without adequate leadership to properly harness their revolutionary energy, their potential was wasted. Fortunately for the Bolsheviks, and for the revolution, the incompetence of Kerensky and the Provisional Government would restore the their popularity, and allow them to atone for their mistakes by October.

The final nail in the coffin between the Provisional Government and the military came at the end of August, with and event known as the Kornilov affair.  By this point, both the Revolutionary Defensist leaders, and the government, were unable to meet people’s basic needs, and popular support of the government was plummeting quickly. To restore order, conservatives began to seek a military leader, who could act as a “Napoleon” to the Russian Revolution. Many saw this figure in General Kornilov, who had recently been appointed as Commander of the Armies by Kerensky in order to restore order in the military. After becoming convinced that Kornilov was plotting a coup, Kerensky had him dismissed. Miscommunication occurred between the two parties, and under the assumption, that he would be welcomed by the Provisional Government, Kornilov dispatched troops to quell perceived disorder in Petrograd. It failed, however, “largely because of the unreliability of the troops and the energetic actions of the Petrograd workers. Railway-men diverted and obstructed the troop-trains; printers stopped publication of newspapers supporting Kornilov’s move; metalworkers rushed out to meet the oncoming troops and explain that Petrograd was calm and their officers had deceived them. Under this pressure, the troops’ morale disintegrated, the coup was aborted outside Petrograd without any serious military engagement, and General Krymov, the commanding officer acting under Kornilov’s orders, surrendered to the Provisional Government and then committed suicide. Kornilov himself was arrested at Army Headquarters, offering no resistance and taking full responsibility” (Fitzpatrick 60). The result was a complete collapse of faith in the Provisional Government.  From this point forward, soldiers were no longer willing to defend it. Any remaining morale left among them was irrevocably destroyed. Kerensky’s decision to launch an offensive would spell the beginning of the end for his government, but would be advantageous to the Bolsheviks, setting the groundwork that would eventually allow them to seize power. The failure of leadership, and the subsequent loss of faith of the revolutionary masses in it, extended beyond that of the Provisional Government. Largely due to how they handled the situation, trust was also lost in the official, Moderate Socialist leadership of the Petrograd Soviet. The combination of these factors set the stage for the October Revolution. Convinced that the Provisional Government was incapable or unwilling of defending the revolution, the majority of the armed forces had no interest in defending the government. The Bolsheviks, in declaring the Provisional Government untrustworthy from the beginning, as well as preferring a strategy of Revolutionary Defeatism (turning the imperialist war into a class war), over the moderate strategy of Revolutionary Defensism, were the sole party able to legitimately claim to support the revolution. Throughout August and September, this began to translate to institutional power as factories and army units reelected more radical delegates. Combinations of Bolsheviks, Left SRs, and Menshevik-Internationalists took control of Petrograd district soviets, trade unions, and factory committees, as well as soldiers’ committees.  By then end of September, the Revolutionary Defensist leadership of the Petrograd Soviet was replaced by Bolsheviks and Left SRs. (Wade 48).

The meeting of the Congress of Soviets, originally scheduled for October 12th, was postponed to the 25th in order for more delegates to arrive. The decision to postpone the Congress would allow the Bolsheviks the time they needed to mobilize support, and secure the transfer of power to the Soviets. In order to defend the Congress and the revolution against the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks, along with Left SRs, formed the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. The role of the MRC was to “organize meetings to rally the support of the soldiers for the Soviet and to obtain pledges from army regiments that they would obey only orders signed by the MRC. This insured that the soldiers would support the Congress of Soviets’ declaration of power, or at least not oppose it.” (Wade 52). The formation of the MRC would cause Kerensky to make his final mistake. On the morning of October 24, he dispatched military cadets and militiamen loyal to the Provisional Government to raid the printing press of Bolshevik newspapers. Once informed of this, the leaders of the MRC declared the appearance of counter-revolution. Very little actual fighting occurred, and pro-soviet forces were able to capture key strategic points in the city by nightfall.  The majority of soldiers were unwilling to fight for either side, although those who were, overwhelmingly favored the Soviet. The Provisional Government had a great deal of difficulty in trying to mobilize support.  “Through the twenty-fourth, the Soviet leaders called on workers and soldiers to defend the Congress and the revolution, while Kerensky’s government tried to find reliable military support for the growing confrontation. Their efforts met very different responses. Kerensky found little support within the city or from nearby garrisons. In fact, few soldiers were eager to fight for either side, and those who were willing overwhelmingly supported the Soviet. Some radicalized army units and the workers’ Red Guards took to the streets to defend Soviet power. In confused, largely uncoordinated, struggles that involved mostly push and shove, bluff and counterbluff, Red Guards and pro-Soviet soldiers gradually took control of bridges and key buildings.” (Wade 54). The Bolsheviks had come to power with the support of the military. The military would remain largely pro-Bolshevik, even after their transfer of power. In the elections of the Constituent Assembly, held in November, “the armed forces, whose five million votes were counted separately, the Bolsheviks had an absolute majority in the Armies of the Northern and Western Fronts and the Baltic Fleet-the constituencies they knew best, and where they were best known. On the southern fronts and in the Black Sea Fleet, they lost to the SRs and Ukrainian parties.”. (Fitzpatrick 66).

The Russian Revolution’s influence would not be confined solely to the Russian Military. The desire to bring an end to WW1 was prevalent among the population as well as the military throughout all countries involved in it. The mutinies of French troops in May and June of 1917 that followed the Nivelle Offensive, essentially a military strike, were in large part influenced by the February Revolution. In Germany in November 1918, following an order given by their officers, that would assuredly end in defeat, sailors in Kiel would mutiny and go on to set up councils of soldiers and sailors based on the Russian soviets.

While the military alone is no substitute for the revolutionary position of the  proletariat, its is apparent that for a revolution to be successful, either passivity and an unwillingness to defend the Old Order, or a class conscious and pro-revolutionary army, is needed. There seems to be a difference in revolutionary potential between the military, and the police, who act as the first line of defense of the State. The experience of suppressing domestic uprisings; the use of force against citizens of one’s own country, these are things carried out on a daily basis by the police. Operating primarily in foreign/international territory, the military does not regularly do this, at least not in its own country. The role of family must be considered. Being ordered to fire into crowds that potentially contain wives, mothers, children could certainly inspire a revolutionary outlook. Of the women who demonstrated on International Women’s Day in February, those who had husbands at the front were particularly likely to object continuation of the way (Fitzpatrick 53).   Another potential factor is that members of the military have the exposure to soldiers from other countries, a fact that could play a role in the formation of class consciousness and the idea of proletarian internationalism, as is evidenced by revolutionary sailors in Russia and Germany. The experience of the  Russian Revolution shows that under proper historical conditions, soldiers are capable of becoming class conscious, and fighting in the interests of their own class, rather than that of their nation, or their Officers.  


Works Cited


Figes, Orlando “A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924”

Fitzpatrick, Sheila “The Russian Revolution”

Wade, Rex “The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War”