Without question the most far-reaching event of November 1917 – and perhaps the entire war – was the October Revolution (remember the Julian calendar?) in Russia. In September Kerensky had armed the Bolsheviks and released their leaders in order to suppress the Kornilov revolt, and he now reaped the whirlwind.
On 5 November the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks voted for insurrection, and two days later Red Guards began occupying government buildings and key facilities in St. Petersburg, meeting little opposition. Most of the troops in or near the city and most of the railway workers joined the revolt, leaving the Provisional Government with little support. Kerensky fled the city, seeking loyal military units, and Lenin issued a proclamation that the Provisional Government had been overthrown.
That was perhaps a bit hasty, but on 8 November the Bolsheviks besieged the headquarters of the government, the Winter Palace, which was guarded by a ragtag force of 3000, including 147 soldiers of the 2nd Moscow Women’s Battalion of Death. The actual attack was delayed until evening, after most of the defenders had fled, and at 9:45 PM the cruiser Aurora, anchored in the harbor and manned by sympathetic sailors, fired a shot to signal the assault. By 2:00 AM the Winter Palace was in Soviet hands (the last defenders, the Women’s Battalion, surrendered), virtually without bloodshed (contrary to later Soviet propaganda), and the Provisional Government, which had been debating what to do, was arrested.
(The capture of the Winter Palace also meant the capture of one of the largest stocks of liquor in the world. This being Russia, soon all the soldiers were drunk, and the looting spread from the Palace to the homes of the wealthy. Lenin sent more detachments to the Palace and set up guards, but they too (“the disciplined vanguard of the proletariat”) joined in the boozing. Pumping all the wine into the streets only resulted in the crowds bellying up to the gutter for a drink, and the party only ended when the center of St. Petersburg ran out of liquor. The Soviet Union began its existence with a massive hangover.)
In an essentially bloodless coup Vladimir Lenin and his tiny band of Bolsheviks had capitalized on discontent in the capital and spearheaded the revolution and were now the government of the Russian Empire. Lenin took the office of Prime Minister and Leon Trotsky that of Foreign Minister, while the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets, meeting from 7 to 9 November, ratified the Revolution. Kerensky’s force of Cossacks was defeated just outside the city on the 12th, and on the next day Moscow was seized after serious street fighting. Kerensky fled St. Petersburg and ultimately Russia on 15 November; he died in New York City in 1970, ironically surviving all his enemies. The murderous and often bizarre history of the Soviet Union had begun.
Opposition arose almost immediately and would lead to the five year nightmare of the Civil War, but the impact of the Revolution on the war was immediate. Unlike Kerensky, Lenin recognized (and had promised) the need for peace, especially to secure the new regime, and saw no reason to honor Russia’s commitments to the Allies. On 26 November three Russian emissaries crossed German lines under a white flag and arranged for armistice discussions at Brest-Litovsk, the German headquarters on the Belarus-Polish border. In less than a month Russia would be out of the war.