Lenin spend the two months preceding the overthrow of the provisional government far away from Saint-Petersburg/Petrograd or Moscow - even the official Soviet version of events openly and readily admitted that he arrived to the revolutionary headquarters at Smolny Institute in the last moments before the government overthrow.

In the same time, Trotsky apparently orchestrated the revolution1 (of which the attack on the Winter palace was only the last act) - by assuring control of the media and the communications,s getting the support of the military and workers, and planning the action in details. As the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet Trotsky also held the political power. (This part was obviously hushed down in the Soviet discourse, but is routinely referred to in western descriptions.)

Naively, it seems that Trotsky was the man calling the shots - therefore it is not obvious why he would allow Lenin to play any important role at all (honesty, chivalry and party discipline are all good, but power is power.) Or perhaps he even didn't intend to let Lenin in - as Trotsky was made to control both the foreign affairs and the army in the new government, which might suggest that Lenin was just a figurehead (this is not unlike the preceding government, where Kerensky was the real strongmen, while not being the prime-minister.)

Is my assessment of their relative power/influence supported by the evidence? What else accounts for the outcome?

1 E.g., here is the recap of the situation from Marxism after Marx by David McLellan (emphasis mine):

By mid-September Lenin - still in Finland - wrote to the Central Committee: "The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of workers and soldier deputies of both capitals, can and must take State power into their own hands." Most of the Party leaders still in Russia, mindful of the July defeat, were loath to take Lenin's suggestion seriously and he went as far as threatening to resign from the Central Committee and appeal to the ordinary members in order to stir them to the decisive action, which he only finally managed to implement by coming to St Petersburg in person in Mid-October. Even so, such influential members as Zinoviev and Kamenev (and they were not alone) continued to oppose insurrection and even publicized the split (and thus Lenin's intentions) in print. But the plans for insurrection meticulously prepared and supervised by Trotsky, had their own momentum and when the Provisional Government attempted to close certain Bolshevik papers on 24 October the Bolshevik seizure of power began, a seizure which, at least in its initial stages, must be one of the easiest and least bloody in history.

  • @MCW As is, a possible answer is that my assessment of the relative influence Lenin and Trotsky is incorrect. Perhaps, the title should be more towards asking about how big was the influence of each of them or whether there was any struggle for power between them. I am not sure how this could be expressed in a short sentence - if you have suggestions, I am ready to consider them.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 14:16

2 Answers 2


Short Answer

Lenin and Trotsky were entirely involved in the events of October 1917, particularly if those events were classified as a coup and not a revolution. Trotsky was a leading "organizer on the ground," while Lenin was the undisputed leader and essence of the Bolshevik Party.

Long Answer

To understand how Russian revolutionaries related to major unrest in Imperial Russia, it's worth noting how things had unfolded in prior events.

Russian revolutionaries tended to be out of touch with initial uprisings. The typical peasant revolts of old times generally had no political aims, and the unrest of the universities and even the lead-up of the revolution of 1905 were pedantic in nature: society began to snap at certain hot-button yet confined issues, for example, food strikes or university students wanting to get the police to loosen up on them.

The revolutionaries pulled a lot of theory from German idealists, which arguably did not help them much. German idealism and philosophy, such as that of Marx and others, of the late 1800s was esoteric and convoluted. The main effect was that as their theories ran like a rabbit through the woods, any listener would eventually hear what they wanted to hear to confirm their own beliefs. To the Russian revolutionaries, they took away some bits of theory of political revolution that would never occur in Russia. Their efforts to stoke a peasant uprising on these theories in the 1870s fell flat on its face because of this disconnect. When an uprising would occur, such as the 1899 university strikes, the revolutionaries would at first sit on the benches and play down the event because it was not in accordance with their German-derived doctrine. When the uprising showed signs of serious traction, they would then leap into action, try to wrest control of it (usually by setting up a leadership committee in the epicenter) and try to attach grand political aims to the movement. Usually these grand political aims, like overthrowing the monarchy, would alienate the masses involved and leave the revolutionaries stuck between a rock: the slow and ham-fisted government, and a hard place: an obstinate populace.

Thus the revolutionaries, including Lenin's Bolshevik Party - a party that he built and cast his entire life into - "missed" the Revolution of February 1917. In that case, the stresses of the war combined with a government that was completely out of touch with realities on the street came to a head due to weather: the winter had been unusually cold and food supplies dwindled, but a warm snap in February allowed everyone to turn out and vent their frustrations. Food strikes rapidly flared up and led to a serious rebellion among the troops (the troops being recent drafts who cared more about their grievances from their peasant days than being soldiers in the present). The Tsar's government was paralyzed against the mass rebellion and resigned.

Note that in February, Lenin was in Zurich. His diary of that winter showed frenetic yet unfocused efforts: pamphlet publishing, intriguing against the Swiss SD's, and studying Marx and Engels. He did not know of the seriousness of the revolution until the Duma had assumed power. He frantically plotted to return to Russia, and in the mean time sent cables to his associates in Russia with orders: Lenin was fearful that his colleagues would negotiate or find an agreement with the new government.

Following the abdication of the Tsar and during the days of the Provisional Government, a power vacuum formed that Lenin was desperate to seize. His initial strategy, from April to July, was to take to the streets with armed force and emulate in deed (but not in spirit) the events of February. This effort did not succeed and the Bolshevik Party almost collapsed in July. Going back to the drawing board, a more insidious plan was developed from August that put on a facade of hosting the Congress of Soviets (the bait), while focusing on a plan to have the party's armed wing seize certain centers of power by force (the coup). The facade of seeking to transfer power to the soviets was more of Trotsky's project.

Trotsky was an ideal complement to Lenin. Brighter and more flamboyant, a much better speaker and writer, he could galvanize crowds: Lenin's charisma was limited to his followers. But Trotsky was unpopular with the Bolshevik cadres, in part [...] because he was unbearably arrogant. [..] During the Revolution and Civil War he was Lenin's alter ego, an indispensable companion in arms: after victory had been won, he became an embarrassment.

  • Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pg 439.

Trotsky's skill as a public whip began to place the Provisional Government - seriously weakened after the Kornilov Affair - on the horns of a dilemma with the upcoming Congress of Soviets. The strategy was expressed by Trotsky:

In essence, our strategy was offensive. We prepared to assault the government, but our agitation rested on the claim that the [government] was getting ready to disperse the Congress of Soviets and it was necessary mercilessly to repulse him.

  • Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pg 485.

The coup itself was exemplified by events of the night of October 24:

That night [], the Bolsheviks systematically took over all the objectives of strategic importance by the simple device of posting pickets: it was a model modern coup d'etat as described by Malaparte. Iunker guards were told to go home: they either withdrew voluntarily or were disarmed. Thus, under cover of darkness, one by one, railroad stations, post offices, telephone centers, banks, and bridges fell under Bolshevik control. No resistance was encountered, no shots fired.

  • Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pg 491.

For Lenin's part, he is given credit because the Bolshevik Party was his and he was the Party. His life was so entwined with it that little material exists of who Lenin the Person was. However, he was not directly front and center during the coup: the disaster of July caused him to go into hiding and to make no public appearances until late October. While in "seclusion" he issued orders from afar but was also lagging in responding to events while being alone and designing the world to his liking - a typical position for Lenin throughout his life. However, his enormous force of will drove the party forward, as Lenin was almost alone in the Central Committee for his extreme stance and goal - yet it was achieved. During October 24-25, Lenin spent the time in disguise and making furtive movements. Shortly after, he was almost forced to take the chair of the new proto-government Sovnarkom.

In conclusion, Trotsky was responsible for "public agitation" and for running the "legitimate face" of the coup: pitting the Congress of Soviets against the government. Lenin lashed the party - often from a distance - for extreme goals and put out strategy that was often hit-and-miss with real events.

Coups are by definition events that can be placed at the feet of certain names and faces, and in this case Trotsky and Lenin were responsible.

This answer is a digest that is sourced from:

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. Vintage Books, 1990.

Pipes, Richard. Russia under the Old Regime. Penguin Books, 1995.


I can't offer a succinct answer, but Mike Duncan develops the answer in depth in the Revolutions Podcast; Lenin's intellectual and strategic leadership was undeniable. Without Lenin there would have been no revolution.

Lenin strategically manipulated all forces to the cusp of a revolution. Everyone else was seeking some form of harmonious outcome along the lines of a pareto optimal parliament. Lenin advocated for revolution in public and in private manipulated to ensure that revolution would occur.

  • 1
    Not directly related - I think that with the advantage of the hindsight we can say that the revolution was an error. Even from the Marxist point of view - Russia could have benefitted from developing democratic/liberal/capitalist society along western lines. The lack of mature proletariat resulted in the party dictatorship with the well-known consequences. One could even say that, thanks to the October revolution, Russia returned to the autocratic rule, which had been supposed to end in February.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 18:45

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