April Crisis

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The euphoria of the February Revolution did not last long. Within weeks of the overthrow of the tsar, the continued, indeed intensified, deterioration of economic life was roiling the population. With inflation beginning to spiral out of control, agreements concluded between nascent trade unions and employers rapidly became moot as wage increases were nullified by rising prices. Factory owners as well as the landed nobility tended to look to the Provisional Government to protect them from the rising tide of worker and peasant demands. Workers organized factory committees to press their case for workers’ control of factory administration and sought the support of the soviets; peasants petitioned the Provisional Government for revision of land ownership and when they received no effective reply, began to organize rent strikes and even seizures of landowners’ property.

Over and above these economic issues, though, was the question of Russia’s participation in the war, which was widely blamed for its economic miseries. The Petrograd Soviet brought pressure on the Provisional Government by issuing an “Appeal to All the Peoples of the World” on March 14 that repudiated expansionist war aims in the name of “revolutionary defensism.” The government responded on March 27 with a “Declaration on War Aims” that also rejected annexations and indemnities as war aims but contradictorily asserted the need to observe treaty obligations. In the midst of these tensions between the two central institutions of “dual power,” Vladimir Lenin arrived in Petrograd on April 3 aboard a sealed train that had taken him from Switzerland through Germany. At the Finland Station he issued a speech denouncing both positions and demanding the elimination of dual power by the transfer of “all power to the soviets.” These so-called April Theses clearly set the Bolsheviks apart from the other socialist parties, and it took all of Lenin’s considerable persuasive powers to overcome opposition among those who had been guiding the party in his absence.

The dispute over Russia’s war aims exploded into a full-blown political crisis after the publication of a note that the Foreign Minister, Pavel Miliukov, had sent to the allies on April 18 reaffirming the Provisional Government’s commitment to prosecute the war to a victorious end and observe all treaties entered into by its tsarist predecessor. Mass demonstrations and clashes on the streets of Petrograd forced both Miliukov and the War Minister, Aleksandr Guchkov, to resign. The Provisional Government thereupon invited the Petrograd Soviet to help form a coalition government consisting of both socialist and non-socialist leaders, an invitation that the Soviet Executive Committee accepted with reservations. On May 5, five additional socialists including the Socialist-Revolutionary, Victor Chernov, and the Mensheviks Irakli Tseretelli and Mikhail Skobelev, joined Kerenskii in government. This had two critical consequences: the lines of dual power became considerably blurred, and the two main socialist rivals of the Bolsheviks now were inextricably associated with the policies of the Provisional Government and above all, its continued prosecution of the war.

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