At the start of 1917, it was clear that Russia was, in the words of the revolutionary and novelist Victor Serge, “sliding into the abyss”. The country was being stretched to breaking point by the demands of World War I. Millions were dying in the trenches, and behind the lines, the economy was unravelling. In the first weeks of 1917, Serge writes, “most Russian politicians and generals, not to mention several Grand Dukes, were thinking of how they might avert a revolution in the streets by conducting one in the palace”. But, Serge goes on, “nobody dared to do anything” and “the revolution did come into the streets”.
On 23 February 1917 (8 March in the Western calendar—International Working Women’s Day) women textile workers in Petrograd led 100,000 workers out on strike. The next day the numbers doubled, and from there it spiralled out of the authorities’ control. The February Revolution had begun, and the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty, headed by Tsar Nicholas II, was enjoying its last days of power. Barely a week after the first strikes of the revolution broke out, the tsar—who was stranded in a railway car that workers refused to allow to move—was forced by his own generals to abdicate.
News of the end of tsarism spread fast. Eduard Dune, a factory worker and enthusiastic participant in the revolution, recalled in his memoir Notes of a Red Guard the moment a demonstration in Moscow got word of it. “The news swept through them like a breeze”, he wrote, “and created an extraordinary atmosphere. People began to embrace and kiss ... the mood of the crowd was transmitted to one another like conduction”. Across Russia, similar scenes played out.
Meetings of the newly elected soviets—which brought together thousands of delegates from factories, barracks and peasant villages—ran day and night. Debates raged everywhere. Limitless new ideas were raised about what needed to be done to improve society. Smaller groups and committees responsible for all manner of tasks the revolution had set itself sprung up like mushrooms—including armed detachments. In these early days of the revolution, the armed workers’ militias were most commonly formed simply by someone putting out a call and getting a few volunteers.
Clashes with police or right-wing soldiers were rare. Rex Wade, in his definitive history Red Guards and Workers’ Militias in the Russian Revolution, writes that “workers, students, citizens, and soldiers, intoxicated by liberty, had [during the February Revolution] careered around the city in trucks brandishing arms they did not really expect to use”. People were improvising—pulling groups together and sending them, in another memoirist’s words, “God knows from where, to where, and for what reason”.
Like much of what occurred in February, it’s easy to overstate just how spontaneous the workers’ militia movement was. Lessons had been learnt by many workers who recalled the violent repression they faced after the abortive revolution of 1905. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had noted then that “what is lacking [on the revolutionary side] ... is a military force”. The Bolsheviks were acutely aware that gains won easily in February could also be lost. They warned persistently (and presciently) that the capitalists, together with the remnants of the old tsarist order, would counterattack, and they foresaw the crucial role the workers’ militias would play in the defence against this.
As the revolution went on from February into March, the militias grew at pace. By this point, as Wade recounts, “a bewildering array of militias ... and other armed groups existed, and more were being created daily. An estimated 20,000 men were under arms in these organizations by mid-March”. Not everyone, of course, was pleased with this development. The militias, Wade writes, “thrilled the hearts of revolutionaries and tormented the leaders trying to harness the revolutionary tide”.
Following the abdication of the tsar, power passed into the hands of a Provisional Government made up of the remnants of the tsarist State Duma. The first order of business for this body—dominated, as it was, by representatives of the Russian capitalist class—was to bring the disorders on the streets under control and get Russia back to work and back behind the war effort. For this they needed a reliable police force, one they could use to combat strikes and protests by workers. They set about organising, for this purpose, a number of detachments under the banner of the City Militia, and they demanded that the workers’ militias be subsumed under its leadership.
The revolutionary workers, however, jealously guarded their independence. The tension between the City Militia and the workers’ militias wasn’t just a matter of turf, but of class power. This conflict between armed bands, one at the disposal of the Provisional Government, and one under the sway of the most radical section of the soviets, reflected the dual power contest the whole of Russia was engulfed in between March and October.
The workers’ militias were selective about who was allowed to join. “The candidacy of each prospective member”, Dune writes, “was discussed at a session of the factory committee, and applicants were often turned down on the grounds that they were regularly drunk, or engaged in hooliganism, or had behaved coarsely with women”. The family circumstances of the potential recruits were also taken into account, disallowing sole providers, for instance.
The workers’ service in the militias didn’t separate them from the rest of their class. They didn’t have their own special barracks or stations like the police, but lived their lives immersed in the working-class communities they served. It was common in 1917 for each individual factory contingent in the mass protests of workers that regularly occurred to be headed by the factory committee and delegates to the soviet, followed by the armed factory guard and then the rest of the workers. The role of militias was to be a kind of advance guard of the broader working-class movement.
As the militias grew to be a recognised part of the revolution, they required a more “official” name. A Bolshevik by the name of Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich suggested one in an article in Pravda on 18 March: the “Red Guard”. By this time they had procured a large quantity of arms. The Red Guards were quite coy about the number of weapons they had stockpiled, preferring to plead poor. But a hint as to their surprisingly large cache comes from the counter-revolutionary General Lavr Kornilov, who on 31 March was forced—rather humiliatingly—to plead for the return of 40,000 missing rifles and 30,000 revolvers to the military’s stores.
How did the workers get their guns? The bulk of them were handed over by military units that had been won to the revolution. Others, however, were procured by more ad hoc means. In the early days of the revolution, some enterprising workers found that it was a reasonably simple matter to get their hands on weapons, by searching in the streets until they stumbled on a policeman who was unfortunate enough to be standing or walking alone.
The February Revolution had raised expectations enormously among Russia’s mass of workers, soldiers and peasants. But delivering on these hopes was another matter altogether. The war dragged on, bosses steadily eroded the gains won in the workplace, and the feeling of collective euphoria of the first days and weeks of the revolution faded, leaving an enormous and rapidly growing reservoir of discontent and frustration.
Increasing numbers of workers came to see the Provisional Government as a barrier to the further advance of the revolution. The answer, many thought, was workers’ power. “If we could organize a revolutionary government in one factory”, Dune reflected, “then why could we not create a similar order across the whole of Russia?” But, when it came to how this power was to be organised, he continued, “No one had a clear idea”. In April, Bolshevik leader Lenin returned to Russia, declaring, “We must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants”. To revolutionary workers like Dune, that sounded grand. The question was: how? And, in particular, when?
Anger at the lack of change built to a crescendo in the first days of July. In the July Days, as they’ve come to be known, tens of thousands of soldiers and workers came out onto the streets of Petrograd to demand that all power be transferred into the hands of the soviets—not next month, not next week, but now. The Bolshevik leadership, aware that the uprising was premature but unable to stop the demonstrations, put the party at the head of the movement in an attempt to prevent it collapsing into carnage.
The movement was isolated and repressed. The provinces weren’t ready to follow Petrograd down the path of insurrection. The bulk of the army remained loyal to the Provisional Government, ensuring that any genuine attempt at insurrection would be drowned in blood (and also, in the minds of many revolutionary workers, further emphasising the importance of the Red Guards). Heavy days followed. Slanders against Lenin and the Bolsheviks spread like wildfire. Enormous numbers of people were imprisoned or forced into hiding, and a certain number of guns were seized.
“This was the time”, Dune wrote, “when the Bolsheviks were being persecuted ... The newspapers spoke of the Bolsheviks losing their influence on the masses, but in fact we noticed that it was growing, at least to judge by the number of those wishing to join the Red Guard detachment. Attached to it was now a nursing corps, formed by young women at the factory. For more than a month we were dubbed ‘German spies’, but in August came the counterrevolutionary rebellion of Kornilov”.
The Kornilov coup was a pivotal moment on the road to the October insurrection. After months of wrangling with the heads of the Provisional Government for a decisive end to the instability in Russia, General Kornilov had grown weary of their vacillations and decided to take matters into his own hands. In August he launched a military invasion of Petrograd. The working-class and left response was enormous. Factory after factory held meetings denouncing the coup and mobilising workers for the armed defence of the revolution. The workers demanded, and received, a new supply of weapons from the government’s stores. The Putilov factory alone sent a detachment of 800 armed metalworkers to the outskirts of the city to meet Kornilov and his army.
Kornilov, however, never made it that far. “The railroad workers”, Trotsky writes, “tore up and barricaded the tracks in order to hold back Kornilov’s army”. Bolshevik agitators surrounded them at the stations where they were stuck and convinced many of the soldiers to abandon Kornilov on the spot. The coup rapidly dissipated into nothing, but not before it had both further discredited the Provisional Government (the head of which, Alexander Kerensky, was revealed to have been conspiring with Kornilov in the lead-up to the coup), and convinced much wider layers of people of the need for soviet power as the only reliable defence against counter-revolution.
By October the Bolsheviks’ demand for “all power to the soviets” had become almost universal among workers, soldiers and peasants. In addition to the ongoing carnage of the war, the economy had catastrophically collapsed, and hunger raged. Everyone felt a final showdown coming. The Red Guards were sleeping in their factories with their rifles. Ugarov, a factory worker, wrote of receiving an order “to prepare the Red Guard for action. The bolts of rifles clicked”.
The October insurrection wasn’t marked by large marches of workers in the streets—a fact which many have taken as a sign that it lacked the element of mass participation seen in February. But the “orderliness” of the October Revolution reflected, not the lack of mass participation, but its much more organised and directed character. “The Red Guard detachments”, Trotsky wrote, “felt at their back the support of the factories. The soldier squad returning to the barracks found the new shifts ready. Only with heavy reserves behind them could revolutionary detachments go about their work with such confidence”. This is demonstrated by the account of one Bolshevik leader and worker, A. Vasil’ev, who when he arrived at his factory to round up a portion of the Red Guard there, found every single one of the workers already lined up outside, ready to take part.
The Red Guards were the core of the armed insurrection. There were no wavering units among them. They seized bridges and railway stations, stiffened the resolve of the revolutionary soldiers, kept public order and stormed the last bastion of resistance of the counter-revolution: the Winter Palace. These were mainly bloodless events, with many reports of Red Guards stepping in to prevent unnecessary violence. They could act so decisively and effectively only because they were supported by the immense majority of Russia’s population at the time. This mass of people formed the body of the revolution, while the Red Guards were, in the decisive moment, its iron fist.
Following the revolution, the Red Guards continued to play a role as armed protectors of the newly won and fragile power of the workers’ state. Subsequently, the Guards were incorporated into the Red Army, which had to be established and trained in a matter of months in order to fight the assembled forces of reaction that sought to strangle the new Soviet regime. Many former members of the Red Guards went on to play a central, and heroic, role in the civil war that raged from 1918 to 1921.