When the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd in November 1917, they faced many problems. Not least was the fact that the Bolsheviks only controlled a very small part of Russia – basically the land between Petrograd and Moscow, a rectangular band of territory 30 miles by 400 miles. Outside of this territory, there were many groups that were opposed to the Bolsheviks. Some areas broke away from Russia to become semi-autonomous regions. Even in the land between Moscow and Petrograd, the Bolsheviks were far from being free of enemies.
However, the Bolsheviks did have a number of major advantages over their opponents. They had a leader who was driven by energy and desire – Lenin. His military commander was equally as gifted – Leon Trotsky. The party was actually reasonably small in numbers. This made party discipline much easier to control and maintain. The party had a central body of authority called the National Council. This elected the party’s commissars (ministers) and Lenin was the president. Such tight organisation was vital for success. No other political party in Russia had such organisation and, as a result, the Bolsheviks had a major advantage over them.
The first task for Lenin was to withdraw Russia from a highly unpopular war. Both sides benefited from this. The Germans could shift all their forces on the Eastern Front to the Western Front. Lenin could concentrate all his resources on what was happening in Russia. On December 14th, 1917, an armistice was concluded between Russia and the Central Powers.
The start of the negotiations with the Germans did not go smoothly. Trotsky did not share Lenin’s belief that it should be peace at any price. As Foreign Commissary, Trotsky started the first talks. Trotsky believed that the Russian Revolution would be the catalyst for a world revolution with the workers across the world showing their support for the Bolsheviks. He therefore felt that the Germans were not in the strong position they believed themselves to be as, in Trotsky’s mind, the workers in Germany would rise up in support of the Bolsheviks. He even appealed to the German workers directly. When it became clear that he was wrong and he failed to soften the German demands, he walked out of the negotiations.
The Germans went back on the armistice on February 12th, 1918 and advanced a further 100 miles into Russia in just 4 days. Lenin then took charge and ordered that there should be peace at any price. The result was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This treaty took away from Russia all the land gained since Peter the Great and it separated the Ukraine. Germany was to take from her new territory what she felt was needed to fight the war. When Germans complained about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, many reminded them of the terms the Germans were willing to impose on the Russians with Brest-Litovsk.
However, the treaty gave Lenin what he needed – time to concentrate solely on Russia. Many groups had formed that wanted the Bolsheviks destroyed. In the Russian Civil War, these were to be known as the Whites. They had little in common, other than a desire to rid Russia of the Bolsheviks.
Lenin also faced an immediate problem in the rectangle of land controlled by the Bolsheviks. Kerensky had promised elections for a constituent assembly while head of the Provisional Government. In July 1917, Lenin had called for a constituent assembly, so he could hardly campaign against one now. Therefore, in December 1917, elections were held for a constituent assembly. The Social Revolutionaries gained most seats (370 out of 703) while the Bolsheviks only got 168 seats. It was obvious that the constituent assembly would be highly critical of Lenin and the Bolsheviks – especially the 100 Mensheviks elected to it. Those voted to the constituent assembly were allowed to meet in the Tauride Palace. The Palace was then surrounded by Red Guards and those in it were told to disperse. It was the first and last time it met.
Lenin could now concentrate on the impending civil war. He also needed to introduce an economic system that was commensurate with his beliefs and one that would benefit those under Bolsheviks rule. This economic policy was to be called ‘War Communism’.
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