On March 2, 1917 (according to the Julian calendar then in use in Russia), Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his throne and, within a few months, Russia came under the control of the unstable provisional government of Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky was a socialist lawyer who hurtled from crisis to crisis, sustained, rumor had it, by a steady diet of brandy, morphine and cocaine.
Vladimir Lenin, the revolutionary firebrand, and his Bolshevik colleagues, Leon Trotsky, Josef Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, wanted nothing to do with the provisional government. They judged it too timid, conciliatory and genteel -- useless for the kind of revolution they had in mind. Lenin wanted the army, police and bureaucracy eliminated, banks socialized, workers put in control of the production and distribution of goods and the land divided among the peasants.
While Lenin hid in Finland and Trotsky languished in Petrograd's gloomy Kresty prison, the country was self-destructing. World War I was still underway, but Russian deserters were drifting away from the front by the thousands, angry and unruly. Peasants began seizing land, murdering landlords. Food became scarce; factories ground to a halt. Inflation skyrocketed.
On Oct. 10, Lenin returned from Finland in the disguise he'd been wearing for several months, his bald head covered with a gray wig and his goatee shaved off.
As the Bolsheviks gained power, it was clear that violence was inevitable. On Oct. 24 -- 90 years ago last week -- Kerensky reinforced the guard at the Winter Palace, closed some of the bridges into the city to restrict access and declared Lenin a state criminal. The next morning, however, Kerensky awoke to discover his phone was dead. The Bolsheviks had taken over the Winter Palace bridge. At 10 a.m., Lenin posted a proclamation: "To the Citizens of Russia! The Provisional Government has been deposed . . . Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants."
Kerensky fled. At 2 a.m. on Oct. 25, with guns from the cruiser Aurora and from the Peter and Paul Fortress firing across the river on the Winter Palace, a few hundred Bolsheviks swarmed up the palace's broad staircases and made their way to the ministers' chamber. The ministers surrendered and were herded down the stairs to cells in the fortress. Red October was over; seven decades of communist rule were about to begin. Almost immediately, the early idealism of the Bolsheviks turned into brutal pragmatism
Today, at the Moscow headquarters of the Tass news agency, wooden drawers that line the walls and tower nearly to the ceiling are packed with photographs from those times. The images on these pages come from that vast archive.
Peter Radetsky is the author of "The Soviet Image: A Hundred Years of Photographs from Inside the Tass Archives," which includes the photos seen here. It was published this month by Chronicle Books.