This coming November will mark the 100th anniversary of the “Bolshevik” or “October” Revolution in Russia—a revolution that would spawn the first communist state and spark a bloody civil war that would last five years. The implications of this event cannot be overstated, as the new Soviet Union would be pivotal in defining the 20th century through events such as WW2 and the Cold War. However, what is the history behind this event, how is Russia responding, and why is the October Revolution in November?
The difference in dates comes from the two different calendars in use at the time—Russia used the Julian calendar, while the rest of Europe used the Gregorian one. While the Gregorian calendar is more specific regarding the exact amount of days per year, the Julian one rounds up to 365.25. This led to the Russian calendar being thirteen days “behind,” as over the centuries since most of Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar. As such, when the revolution was seen as during November 7th, in Russia it seemed to only be October 25th.
For most historians, though, the difference in dates is much less interesting (and crucial to understand) than the actual events that led to this revolution. Vladimir Lenin had been exiled from Russia for years leading up to the revolution, but under German watch, he was shipped back to Russia to ferment revolution. At the time, WW1 was raging, and the Russian Empire under Tsar Nicholas II was losing ground to the German armies. In March, the “February Revolution” ousted the Tsar and put in a provisional government.
This provisional government based in Petrograd, later to be renamed Leningrad and finally St. Petersburg, had been put in power based on the protests of workers starving from the war. However, they made the mistake of keeping Russia in the war, and continuing the workers and peasant’s anger. Throughout July, there were massive strikes and protests, numbering half a million men and women. Lenin was forced to go underground, but the Petrograd “Soviet” (basically a city council) supported him. On November 7th, the soviet voted for revolution and by the next day had seized the headquarters of the provisional government.
Though the Soviets now had control of Russia’s capital, the fighting was hardly over. For the next five years, until 1922 they would fight a bloody civil war against the “Whites,” a coalition of anti-Bolshevik forces. Lenin would sign a deal with the Germans, giving away large swaths of land in exchange for peace. Modern day Russia is having trouble on how to commemorate this anniversary—it cannot be connected to the brutal consequences of revolution, as up to 8 million died in the ensuing civil war. On the other hand, it does not want to represent the weak leadership of Tsar Nicholas II (as he was overthrown).
So far, the only move taken by the government under Putin have been to set up an academic council on the matter. It is unlikely any national holiday or celebrations will take place—again, the government does not want to be associated with revolutionaries and the stigma of Lenin’s leadership. Regardless of official commemorations, the events of the revolution are an important topic that deserves recognition in schools and academia. That may be the best way to approach a topic as sensitive, yet important as this anniversary.