The St Petersburg (Peter and Paul) Fortress went down in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement not only as a prison, but also as a primary military object, always figuring in the strategies of both revolutionaries and their opponents. On December 14, 1825, only a few hours following the armed anti-governmental uprising, the Emperor Nicholas I ordered that the fortress gates be locked and that the guns be loaded with buck-shot.
In case of the further spreading of the uprising, the fortress was to become the main support centre for the government forces. And for that matter certain leaders of the uprising also considered use of the fortress in the struggle against the government. In the beginning of the 1880s members of “The People’s Will” planned armed revolutionary action in St Petersburg and one of their primary operations was to be the seizing of the St Petersburg Fortress. In the years of the First Russian Revolution of 1905-7 the fortress was one of the main centres of the autocracy in its struggle with democratic forces. In 1906 the St Petersburg Military Tribunal was established in the fortress, one of the most cruel punitive institutions of Tsarism ever seen for the purpose of reprisal against those who sought the liquidation of the monarchy in Russia. Each of these courts was comprised of five regular officers and intentionally no one with a background in law was allowed to attend; neither the prosecuting side, nor the defence were professionally represented; the sentences were to be handed down no later than two days after their initial consideration by the court, and took effect immediately; no recourse being allowed, sentences were carried out within twenty-four hours.
But during the second (February) and third (October) revolutions, the role of the fortress was completely different.
On February 27, 1917, the soldiers of the Fourth Company of the Pavlovsky Regiment who came out on the side of the rebelling workers were imprisoned. But already in the morning of February 28 the fortress and its armed bastions surrendered without a single shot to the Military Commission of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The bloodless seizure of the fortress predetermined the surrender to the rebels on the same day of the Admiralty Building – the last stronghold of the old regime in Petrograd. The fortress began to fill with arrested Tsarist ministers and other high officials. Their illegal activities while in office were investigated by a Special Investigating Commission which was convened within the prison in the Trubetskoi Bastion. The well-known Russian poet, playwright and critic, Alexander Blok, was a member of this commission.
On October 20, 1917, in the Smolny Institute Building (the building had since August housed the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies), a special body of the Petrograd Soviet, the Petrograd Military-Revolutionary Committee, began its activities. The committee was created for the preparation and execution of an armed uprising against the Provisional Government for the purpose of establishing Soviet power in the recently (September 1) declared Russian Republic. On October 23, the committee took control over the Peter and Paul Fortress together with its arsenal, where over 100,000 rifles were stored. On October 24, it was decided to make the fortress the field headquarters of the revolution.
According to the plans of the Petrograd Military-Revolutionary Committee, the uprising was to be culminated by a storm of the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government. It was decided that the signal to start the storm would be a shot from the Catherine (Naryshkin) Bastion.
At approximately seven o’clock in the evening of October 25 the field headquarters of the revolution sent an ultimatum to the Headquarters of the Petrograd Military District located next to the Winter Palace which read: “The guns of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the ships Aurora, Amur and others are aimed at the Winter Palace and the building of. the Main Headquarters. In the name of the Military-Revolutionary Committee we demand the capitulation of the members of the Provisional Government and of the military forces subordinate to it.” After the refusal of the Provisional Government to accept this ultimatum, at nine o’clock in the evening the signal was given from the fortress and, after the firing of a blank shot from the bow guns of the cruiser Aurora, the storming of the Winter Palace commenced. Around 2 a.m. in the morning of October 26, the ministers arrested in the palace were brought to the fortress. Meanwhile, at the Smolny, delegates of the Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies ratified the appeal which read: “On the basis of the will of the vast majority of workers, soldiers and peasants, on the basis of the victorious uprising of workers and military forces of the garrison in Petrograd, the Congress now takes power into its hands.”