July Days

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“You have come here, you, red men of Kronstadt, as soon as you heard about the danger threatening the revolution … Long live red Kronstadt, the glory and pride of the revolution!” Thus did Leon Trotsky harangue and flatter the soldiers and sailors who amassed before the Tauride Palace to attempt to force the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet to seize power from the Provisional Government. The armed demonstration which included soldiers from the Petrograd garrison and factory workers began on the evening of July 3 and lasted until the morning of the fifth.

The soldiers and sailors of Kronstadt were among the most militant in the Russian armed forces. In February they had executed some forty officers including the base commander, Admiral R. N. Viren. They had figured prominently in the Petrograd street demonstrations of April and June. In May, the Kronstadt soviet had declared itself the sole authority on the island and endorsed Lenin’s call for “all power to the soviets.” Now in July, they sought to realize that demand, at one point taking captive Victor Chernov, the SR Minister of Agriculture in the Provisional Government, whom they regarded as a traitor to the revolution.

The Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin who had just returned to Petrograd from Finland, was fundamentally ambivalent about the demonstration. While the Central Committee advised caution lest the demonstration provoke a counter-revolutionary thrust, the party’s Military Organization and Petersburg Committee publicly endorsed it and summoned reinforcements from the front. But at the same time, the Executive Committee of the Soviet, still dominated by Mensheviks and SRs, also called up troops to disperse the demonstrators. Moreover, the Provisional Government, in a desperate attempt to undermine the Bolsheviks’ credibility, decided to go public with its investigation of their receipt of German money and charges that Lenin was a German spy. These actions combined to quell the rebellion.

There exists no film footage of the July Days. But ten years later, Sergei Eisenstein’s dramatization of the revolution, October, included what was to become one of the most famous scenes of Soviet cinema in which the demonstrators scatter as they are fired upon from the rooftops.

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