The ‘July Days’ was a spontaneous uprising in Petrograd in the first week of July 1917. This uprising was caused by several factors, including the Provisional Government‘s escalation of the war effort, a collapse in the government ministry and Bolshevik propaganda calling for power to be transferred to the Soviets. The uprising was suppressed by government troops, with disastrous outcomes for the Bolsheviks.
By the beginning of July, thousands of disgruntled workers, soldiers and sailors thought the time had come for a Soviet revolution. They made their move on July 3rd – but neither Soviet leaders nor the Bolsheviks were prepared to support or endorse their actions. Starved of organisation and leadership, the July Days uprising dwindled and failed.
Rightly or not, the Bolsheviks were held responsible for the uprising. Their leaders were targeted, arrested and vilified by hostile government propaganda. Vladimir Lenin was himself forced to flee Russia to Finland
By late July 1917, it looked like the ‘July Days’ had been a fatal error and that the Bolshevik movement had been quashed.
Between April and June 1917, the Bolsheviks worked to consolidate their position, recruit new members and build support. This included extending Bolshevik influence in the Petrograd Soviet, where Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary delegates were still in the majority. Lenin’s tactic was to attack the Provisional Government, praise the Soviets and wait patiently.
Events in mid-1917 fuelled revolutionary sentiment faster than even Lenin would have preferred. The Provisional Government’s adherence to the war radicalised thousands of soldiers and heightened calls for a Soviet revolution.
On June 18th, one military unit, the 1st Infantry Reserve, drafted resolutions calling for the overthrow of the government:
“The slaughter continues and there is an industrial collapse in the making. We see the rich lining their pockets from this criminal war and we sense and know that a sinister and terrible famine is approaching. We also see the jackals from the State Duma and State Council reaching out with their filthy paws to strangle freedom. The rights of the soldier are falling by the wayside; so is the reinforcement of the rights of freedom… We hotly protest any kind of bourgeois ministry and we demand that the ten bourgeois [ministers] make way. We demand that the All-Russian Soviet of Soldiers’, Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies seize all power.”
The ‘Kerensky Offensive’
A dangerous situation was worsened by a disastrous military offensive. In mid-June, Alexander Kerensky, who had recently been promoted to war minister, authorised a major offensive against Austro-Hungarian defences in Galicia.
Kerensky’s decision to launch an offensive appears to have coincided with the arrival of dozens of heavy artillery pieces from Britain and Japan. The new war minister also hoped to improve morale, both in the military and across the nation, with a crushing military victory.
The first two days of the ‘Kerensky Offensive’, as it became known, were reasonably successful. The Allied howitzers blasted openings in the Austro-Hungarian defences and allowed Russian infantrymen to make advances. The offensive soon encountered stronger resistance from German units, however, and began to weaken and collapse. By mid-July, the Russians had suffered 400,000 casualties and were in retreat, surrendering more than 200 kilometres.
This news was met with anger and hostility in the cities. As if aware of the oncoming crisis, the Provisional Government’s coalition ministry collapsed, triggered by the resignation of prime minister Georgy Lvov and all four Kadet ministers.
Trouble in the capital
News of the disastrous offensive, along with the implosion of the government, sparked unrest in Petrograd, not dissimilar to the events of February. On the evening of July 3rd, street demonstrations and riots involving thousands of factory workers broke out in the capital.
The following day, they were joined by mutinous soldiers from the Petrograd garrison, as well as sailors from the nearby island fortress of Kronstadt. The sailors had earlier taken control of their base, murdering more than 40 officers and establishing their own form of direct democracy. Estimates of the numbers of rebels vary. Some sources suggest 100,000 were involved, others more than a half-million.
With another revolution brewing, the question arose of who might lead it. A group of around 30,000 people, including Putilov workers, soldiers and sailors, assembled outside the Tauride Palace, the meeting place of the Petrograd Soviet. The crowd anticipated a declaration from the Soviet that it had assumed power.
“Take power, you son of a bitch”
All they got, however, was Viktor Chernov, the moderate SR leader. Chernov addressed the throng and gave a raft of excuses why the Provisional Government should be allowed to re-form and continue.
Chernov’s equivocation angered the crowd and there was considerable jostling, abuse and some gunfire. One heckler famously shouted at the SR leader: “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it is handed to you!”
Meanwhile, others were looking elsewhere for leadership. Another large group comprised of radical factory workers, soldiers and the Kronstadt sailors marched on the Kseshinskaya Palace, the temporary headquarters of the Bolshevik leadership.
The mob turns to Lenin
Outside, the agitated crowd cheered and chanted for Vladimir Lenin, expecting the Bolshevik leader to seize the day and order the overthrow of the government.
Lenin eventually appeared before them but his comments were brief, restrained and anti-climactic. The Bolshevik leader offered the crowd neither inspiration, instruction nor his full support.
After Lenin finished speaking and withdrew, the deflated mob soon broke up and scattered across the city. Their political ambitions apparently thwarted, many resorted to heavy drinking, looting and vandalism.
When government reinforcements arrived in Petrograd from the front a day later, they were able to crush the uprising without much opposition. Around 700 people were killed, most of them Bolsheviks or Bolshevik sympathisers. More than a thousand Bolsheviks were arrested.
Lenin refuses to gamble
The Bolshevik hierarchy gave the July demonstrators verbal support but refused to back their advance on Provisional Government.
This seems to have been decided by Lenin, who was acutely aware that spontaneous and unplanned revolutions usually failed. Lenin did not trust the unforeseen and was not prepared to stake his political future on a disorganised mob.
Some historians put Lenin’s lack of action down to uncertainty. Richard Pipes, a historian ordinarily critical of Lenin’s thirst for power, describes him as a “hopeless vacillator” during the July Days.
Consequences and aftermath
The outcomes and consequences of the July Days are more certain. Responsibility for the uprising was laid squarely at the feet of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, both by the Provisional Government and moderate elements in the Soviet.
Kerensky, who in late July was appointed prime minister, took immediate action. He ordered the arrest of Lenin and authorised publication of material claiming that the Bolshevik leader was in receipt of German financial support.
Being painted as a traitor eroded Lenin’s popularity and he was forced to flee Russia to Finland, disguised as a fisherman. Hundreds of Bolsheviks were rounded up, imprisoned or forced into exile. With their leaders dispersed and discredited, the Bolsheviks seemed finished – but August was to produce yet another twist in the tale.
A historian’s view:
“One of the most widely circulated post-July Days indictments of the Bolsheviks was written by the famous populist Vladimir Burtsev. On July 6th, in an open letter printed in many papers in Petrograd, he joined the onslaught: “Among the Bolsheviks, provocateurs and German agents have played and continue to play a great role. In regard to the Bolshevik leaders… thanks to them – to Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, etc. [Kaiser] Wilhelm has achieved what he had previously only dreamed about… In those days Lenin and his comrades cost us no less than a major plague or cholera epidemic.”
1. The July Days was a spontaneous uprising of workers and soldiers against the Provisional Government. It took place in Petrograd in the first week of July 1917.
2. The July Days was sparked by growing opposition to Russia’s involvement in the war, a major offensive in Galicia and the collapse of the government.
3. At least 100,000 gathered in the streets of Petrograd, calling for the Soviets to seize power. They also approached Lenin, seeking help or direction.
4. When both Lenin and Soviet leaders refused to take command of the uprising, it was eventually dispersed and crushed by government troops.
5. The Bolsheviks footed the blame for the July Days uprising. Their leaders were targeted by government propaganda and arrests, while Lenin was forced to disguise himself and flee to Finland.