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20 October 2005 Edition

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One Day in October: Remembering the Past - BY SHANE Mac THOMÁIS

On 21 October 1917 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin returned secretly to the Russian city of Petrograd, disguised as a train engineer. He had come to participate in a historic meeting of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party.

Only 12 people attended the meeting and all wore wigs, make-up, glued-on moustaches and false beards. Had the government swooped on the meeting that night they would have made history. Ten of the men present voted for immediate revolution, thus completely isolating Kamenev and Zenoviev who opposed such a course.

The All Russian Soviet Congress was supposed to meet on 2 November but the Menshevik majority decided to postpone to 7 November which enormously helped the Bolsheviks. They had a week to prepare for insurrection.

A small group of Bolshevik troops moved out of their barracks in the early hours of Wednesday 25 October and were relieved at the lack of opposition. They commandeered bridges, the telegraph office, post offices, railroad stations, the Central Bank and power stations. No shots were fired.

Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government woke up that morning to find Bolsheviks controlling the bridge leading to the Winter Palace. He left for the front to raise an army of loyal troops to suppress the uprising.

On 25 October, while the insurrection was in progress, the second Congress of Soviets began. Of the 650 delegates, 390 (60%) were Bolsheviks.

The opening session, its speeches punctuated by rifle fire in the streets, was the scene of a stormy debate over the legality of the congress and the character of the insurrection. Most of the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary delegates withdrew from the congress, which continuously received declarations of support from workers' organisations and military groups.

On 8 November, Lenin declared: "We shall now proceed to the construction of the socialist order."

The congress then took up the three crucial issues of peace, land, and the constitution of a new government. It adopted a manifesto appealing to "all warring peoples and their governments to open immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace". It proposed an immediate armistice for a minimum of three months.

Decisions on the land question were made in the form of a decree: "The right to private property in the land is annulled forever. The landlord's property in the land is annulled immediately and without any indemnity whatever."

All landed estates were made national property and placed under the protection of local land committees and soviets of peasants. The holdings of poor peasants and rank-and-file Cossacks, however, were exempted. Hired labour on the land was prohibited, and the right of all citizens to cultivate land by their own labour was affirmed.

The Congress of Soviets laid down the principle that "the use of the land must be equalised, that is, the land is to be divided among the toilers according to local conditions on the basis of standards either of labour or consumption."

Since most of these principles had already been put into practice by the Bolsheviks, however, the decrees were in effect a ratification of an accomplished fact rather than a new change.

The Congress of Soviets provided for a governmental structure in which supreme authority was vested in the congress itself. Execution of the decisions of the congress was entrusted to the Soviet of People's Commissars, which was made subject to the authority of the Congress of Soviets and to its Central Executive Committee.

Each of the people's commissars was the chairman of a commissariat (commission) corresponding to the ministries of other governments. Lenin was elected head of the Council of People's Commissars. With the establishment of the new government, the Congress of Soviets adjourned.

The decisions of the Congress of Soviets on peace and land evoked widespread support for the new government and they were decisive in assuring victory to the Bolsheviks in other cities and in the provinces. In November the Council of People's Commissars also proclaimed the right of self-determination, including voluntary separation from Russia of the nationalities forcibly included in the Tsarist empire. It nationalised all banks and proclaimed workers' control of production. Industry was nationalised gradually.

The Constituent Assembly, in which the Bolsheviks were only a small minority, was dispersed with armed force by the newly-formed government. The success of the October uprising transformed the Russian Revolution from liberal to socialist in character.

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