How the October Revolution devoured its children

(Graphics: Mykhaylo Bonovskyy)

Execution, suicide, ice pick, and tonsillitis—how did the leaders of the October Revolution meet their end?


What happened to the men and women who were behind the October Revolution in 1917? How long did they survive? How many lived through the civil war, famine, Stalin’s great purges, and World War II? And who was the longest living Bolshevik? In this centenary of the revolution, I sought out to find the answers to these questions.

If the fates of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin are somewhat known, the lives of others revolutionaries are generally overlooked. To see how they played out, I chose 47 major leaders of the revolution and mapped out their deaths.


For whom death came quickly

The first deaths of the revolutionaries came immediately after the success of the revolution. Moisei Uritsky was the first revolutionary to die. In 1918, he was assassinated by an anti-revolutionary cadet. The next came in quick succession: Shahumyan was captured and executed by the enemy during the Russian Civil War, Chudnovskiy died in a battle. Sergeev died in a train crash while testing a new experimental design of a train.

In the aftermath of the First World War, deadly diseases and epidemics started to take the lives of many revolutionaries. One of them was Yakov Sverdlov, who died from influenza in 1919. Typhus claimed the lives of Lazimir and Skvortsov.  

Common health issues were also present. Felix Dzerzhinsky, a prominent Bolshevik who headed the early Soviet secret police and whose statue was placed in front of the KGB building, died from a heart attack. Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar for Education, died from tonsillitis.

Vladimir Lenin survived an assassination attempt in 1918, but his health severely deteriorated. In March of 1923, he suffered a third stroke that paralyzed him on the right side and disabled him to speak. In January 1924, Lenin fell into a coma and died from cerebral hemorrhage, a condition in which blood vessels burst and cause bleeding inside the brain. Lenin died 7 years after the revolution.

The rift between Stalin’s and Trotsky’s faction in the communist leadership became clear in the late nineteen twenties.  Adolph Joffe, Trotsky’s friend and comrade committed suicide—in part, due to an inability to leave the country for treatment, in part due to the bleak situation of Trotsky’s faction in the government and the expulsion of Trotsky from the party. At Joffe’s funeral, Trotsky held one of his last public speeches in the Soviet Union. In 1929, Trotsky was forced to leave the country.

The second round

By 1934, 16 out of 47 revolutionaries died, mostly due to natural causes. Then, in 1936 came the great purge. The Stalinist government accused prominent Bolsheviks of treason and counter-revolutionary activity in show trials in Moscow. As a result, 22 leaders of the October revolution were executed between 1936 and 1938.

Raskolnikov, who at that time served as a foreign ambassador, died under mysterious circumstances. The official theory is that he committed suicide by jumping from a window. Some, however, speculate that he may have been killed.

Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in 1940 on the orders of the Soviet government. He was killed with an ice pick by a Spanish communist who worked for Soviet agents.

Last men standing

Out of the 31 people who lived long enough to see 1936, three-quarters were executed by the government. Only five revolutionaries survived to see the beginning and end of World War II. Alexandra Kollontai, the only former member of the Central Committee to survive Stalin’s purges, died in 1952. Joseph Stalin himself died from a stroke at his dacha near Moscow in 1953. Out of the 47 people, Molotov lived the longest and died in 1986, five years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The majority of the leading revolutionaries suffered imprisonment and torture by the Czarist government. Some managed to escape execution in exile. In 1917, they fought together to establish a new government of workers and peasants.  Out of the 47 leaders, half of the revolutionaries who fought for the new government were devoured by the revolution they helped create.

Bolshevik Party

The majority wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik means ‘majority’ in Russian) was behind the October Revolution in Russia. It later became known as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Central Committee of the party was its ideological core. Its 21 members were elected at the 6th congress of the party in August of 1917. The political bureau with Lenin as its leader was the brain behind the revolution. Many members of the central committee also took part in the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars; Trotsky was the only one who took part in all three.


Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee

The Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee was the muscle behind the revolution. It was formed in October 1917 and included members from different revolutionary parties. They were responsible for organizing the capture of key strategic positions in Petrograd and taking over the power from the provisional government.  


Council of People’s Commissars

The Council of People’s Commissars was the executive government of the revolutionaries, which began its governing duties immediately after the revolution.Members of the council were called people’s commissars. Similarly to the cabinet of ministers, each commissar was responsible for a specific section of government. For instance, at the beginning, Trotsky oversaw Foreign Affairs, while Stalin handled the affairs of nationalities. Vladimir Lenin was the chairman of the council.

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