Russian Revolutions

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Russian Revolutions

Russia 1917


Historians largely agree that revolution was inevitable in Russia after 1861. The maintenance of strict authoritarian rule and the growing separation of people from state created a situation in which any increase in the hardship endured by the Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants could initiate a violent uprising. The revolution of 23-27 February 1917, as denoted by the Julian calendar, began in a bread queue. Following the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, a parliamentary democracy was established, but the state Duma was weak from inception and plagued with attempts at overthrow from both the right and the left. Democracy lasted only eight months. Between 24 and 25 October the Bolsheviks led an armed insurrection supported by a broad coalition of workers and soldiers. This ushered in a new regime that would effect radical change across the economic, political, and social spheres of Russian life. For many, however, life continued much the same as under czardom: punctuated by hardship and repression.


  • 1897: Establishment of the Zionist movement under the leadership of Theodor Herzl.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1911: In China, revolutionary forces led by Sun Yat-sen bring an end to more than 2,100 years of imperial rule.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later on 6 April, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States declares war on Germany.
  • 1917: On both the Western Front and in the Middle East, the tide of the war begins to turn against the Central Powers. The arrival of U.S. troops, led by General Pershing, in France in June greatly boosts morale and reinforces exhausted Allied forces. Meanwhile, Great Britain scores two major victories against the Ottoman Empire as T. E. Lawrence leads an Arab revolt in Baghdad in March, and troops under Field Marshal Edmund Allenby take Jerusalem in December.
  • 1919: Formation of the Third International (Comintern), whereby the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
  • 1927: Stalin arranges to have Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party.

Event and Its Context

The Long-term Causes of Revolution

Russians had attempted revolution prior to 1917, and the fear of an uprising dogged the czarist regime after the French Revolution. Czar Nicholas I had faced a limited rebellion in 1825, which led him to abandon reforms that had been inspired by the influence of revolutionary France. Alexander II, despite introducing sweeping reforms, was assassinated in 1881 by a terrorist bomb, and his successors resorted to the traditional forms of societal control: repression and fear. The Russian political system thus followed the strict autocratic model. Dissent was dealt with swiftly and severely, and any reforms that were introduced were only considered in order to bolster the position of the czar.

The reforms of the 1860s, however, reduced the state's ability to control the masses. The emancipation of the serfs and industrial revolution had allowed the peasants to leave the village communes and seek work in the industrial centers. The working class that this created did not find any greater prosperity. The industrial workers were housed in damp, drafty barracks; wages were low; and the workday was long. In practical terms they had swapped land slavery for wage slavery. They worked to afford their rent and food alone. The diminished number of landed peasants had to work harder as many of the young men migrated to the cities. They had fewer mouths to feed but they still had to meet the redemption payments through which land had passed from the nobility to the communes. The workers and peasants, therefore, had little in the way of security and were no freer than they had been as rural serfs.

The greatest single cause of Russia's problems was economic mismanagement. Agricultural production had plummeted following emancipation. The nobility purchased the majority of commune surpluses and neglected their own arable land. Food crops were largely imported. Food prices in the cities were high at a time when wages needed to be kept low. The low wages were the result of the backward state of Russian industry. Most of the production equipment was imported, as were specialists who trained the workers. Communication links were vastly improved, incredible growth rates were achieved, and an industrial base and a corporate structure were created, both of which expanded exponentially between 1880 and 1910. Output, however, remained low and of poor quality, and these conditions prevailed throughout the czarist period.

With economic instability and extreme hardship as a backdrop, a revolutionary movement flourished. The leaders emerged from, and were denoted as, the intelligentsia. This highlights the division between revolutionaries and the people. The peasants and workers largely sought amelioration by appealing to the czar, not by instituting a change of government. The trade unions, which formed around the major industrial centers, stood as the chief foci for anti-czarist activity. These groups circulated the speeches of Lenin and Leon Trotsky and Lenin's Marxist newspaper, Iskra (The Spark). As economic conditions worsened, exacerbated by wars against the Ottoman Empire and Japan, the force of the revolutionaries' arguments were strengthened.

Short-term Causes, 1905-1917

The event that most significantly damaged the position of the czar in Russian society also led to the failed revolution of 1905. Czarist soldiers fired on a peaceful protest march, led by Father Gapon, outside the Winter Palace. More than a hundred died and became martyrs for the Octobrist cause, a political group whose October Manifesto demanded democratic reforms. Although the revolution was soon suppressed, the Octobrists tried to use the threat of revolution to effect reform, while reminding the people that those killed on Bloody Sunday in 1905 were murdered on the orders of the czar. The ensuing combination of reform and fierce repression paved the way for the events of 1917.

Following the suppression of the mass demonstrations in 1905, Czar Nicholas II attempted to regain control over the Russian people. His first targets were the "disloyal" non-Russians. He used pogroms and educational reforms to attempt the Russification of the various minorities of the Russian Empire. Poles, Finns, and Jews suffered particularly, and many escaped Russia for Britain and the United States. Nicholas II also broke up the communes to reduce collective identity. He created the kulak class of peasant smallholders who had to compete with one another for land and trade. Some complied voluntarily; however, the majority of rural peasants grouped behind the Trudovik or Labour Party to oppose the Stolypin reforms, named after Piotr Stolypin (minister of the interior 1904-1907 and prime minister after 1907). Compliance was enforced brutally among those who resisted. By 1907 the Russian countryside was decorated with "Russia's peasants wearing the neckties awarded by Stolypin,"—in other words, peasants hung on main routes between villages as an example for others considering revolt against reform.

The revolutionary parties were quick to voice their support for the peasants and often campaigned on behalf of the Jews. Their support of the miners and shipbuilders, however, provided a practical dimension for the Marxist arguments of groups such as the Octobrists and the Bolsheviks. Brutality against striking workers fuelled the agitation. One event particularly marked a watershed in political agitation. In March 1912 advancing troops forced over 100 striking miners at the Lena goldfield into a mineshaft entrance and massacred them. The role of the Bolsheviks after any such event was to spread their account of the repression throughout trade union membership. Lenin and Trotsky often toured the industrial centers teaching the workers in Marxist economics and convincing them of their role in the impending revolution.

The major dissatisfaction for the majority of political groups was that, despite having become a constitutional monarchy, the czar was still able to exert autocratic power. On 23 April 1906 the czar agreed to the Octobrist demand of political reform. This transformed the czar's state council into a semiappointed upper house whose membership was supplemented by representatives from the land owning and corporate classes. The move also created a lower house, the state Duma, that would be elected by popular suffrage. Other reforms of the time included rights of free expression and assembly and the right to form a trade union. Article 87 of the new constitution, however, gave the czar the power to dissolve the Duma and legislate alone. Therefore the traditional power of the czar was retained as the Duma was in practice only allowed to pass laws with which the czar agreed.

By March 1907 two Dumas had collapsed because of differences with the czar and his upper house. Nicholas constantly attempted to ensure that the Duma had a conservative majority. This contrasted sharply with popular choice, as it was the left-wing revolutionary groups that largely benefited from the elections. The government found some level of stability under Stolypin, and the third Duma managed to survive until 1912. Stolypin failed to get the Duma and the state council to agree on reform designed on the Bismarkian model, but he managed to maintain his image as a reformer while also bolstering the position of the czar. In reality though, this made him the sworn enemy of both right and left. In September 1911 he was assassinated by a Social Revolutionary turned police agent, possibly under the orders of Czar Nicholas II. Historians agree that Stolypin's power over the Duma, coupled with his popularity among the nobility, made him appear a threat to the czar's power. His death led to a vacuum that could only be filled by the left wing. Following the Lena massacre, Bolshevik activism increased, and the left made considerable advances in the 1912 election. Divisions between the left-wing factions, however, allowed the nationalist Kadets, who at that time supported the czar, to control the Duma. The stagnation of social reforms fed the dissatisfaction within Russian society; war and its associated hardships would spell the end for czarist Russia.

War and Revolution

Russia's position as the policeman of postrevolutionary Europe meant that the nation's entry into World War I was inevitable. Despite contrary advice from his closest advisors, the czar pledged to honor his contract with Britain and France. This led Russia into a war that the nation was economically unable to support and that the czar himself was ill-equipped to lead.

Nicholas II, however, saw himself as the only person capable of leading Russia into war. In his opinion the people had elected those least capable of running a nation, thus he squandered the initially patriotic mood by suspending the Duma and relying increasingly on the advice of his wife, who was of German extraction, and her confidant, the monk Grigory Rasputin. This alienated him from the people, the Russian armed forces, and from large sections of the nobility. Czarina Alexandria became known as "the German woman" or "the German whore." Stories abounded about the debauched lifestyle of Rasputin, as did rumors that Rasputin had the czar and czarina under a demonic spell. These stories compounded to suggest that the czar was personally responsible for Russia losing the war.

Hardships faced by ordinary Russian people increased opposition to the czar. Munitions were scarce and basic food supplies were rationed. Prices for bread spiraled out of control, and few could afford an adequate diet. Famine threatened all the major cities by January 1917.

Even so, only a small minority within the moderate social democratic party openly opposed the war, though the Bolsheviks later claimed that they supported the war because of the opportunities it offered for revolution. Notably, few questioned the course of the nation's policy. In 1915 the liberals formed the Progressive bloc to demand that power be returned to the Duma, though this was largely to coordinate delivery of food supplies. Contemporary accounts express little fear of revolution. The revolutionaries themselves were either in exile or deep underground. By late 1916 the liberals were demanding that the "dark, treasonable elements be removed from court and a constitutional government put in charge of our nation." Their demands were preempted. Rasputin, chief among those seen as dark and treasonous, was assassinated by a group of young nobles led by Prince Yusupov, the czar's cousin. This was symptomatic of the increasingly united opposition to czardom among the upper echelon of society across Russia. Conscription drives were met with violent resistance, troops often deserted, and even the police appeared unwilling to enforce czarist law. Civil war seemed the most likely outcome.

The February Revolution

By December 1916 there were clear signs that order was breaking down. Police officers, facing continual demonstrations against food shortages, warned that "preventative measures are no longer practical." This was proven correct. On 23 February 1917 a group of St. Petersburg (later Petrograd) housewives marked International Women's Day by organizing a demonstration against the price of bread. The march also coincided with calls from de facto Bolshevik leader Joseph Stalin for a national strike and a march on St. Petersburg. For two days demonstrations escalated, and by 25 February the troops were mobilized against the Russian people. On 26 February, a day of prolonged rioting, a Volhynian regiment of the czar's personal guard opened fire and killed over 50 demonstrators. Appalled by their own actions, on the following day regiments of domestic guards joined the demonstrators. The central headquarters of the police was razed to the ground, czarist ministers were arrested, and the government in St. Petersburg was dissolved. Similar demonstrations took place across Russia, and many local government centers were attacked and their occupants killed.

The czar dissolved the Duma on 27 February, declared a state of emergency, and attempted to bring troops back from the front to restore order. The Duma deputies ignored Nicholas II's orders and reconvened to establish the Provisional Duma Committee. This represented all the mainstream parties in the previous Duma. The revolutionary groups, in opposition to the "Provisionals," formed the St. Petersburg Soviet. The Soviet pledged to pave the way for a socialist revolution, but it was ill-placed to assume control of Russia. Instead it agreed that the Provisionals, the bourgeoisie, should form a government. Largely, the Provisional government, as it became known, existed only as long as the Soviet agreed that it could.

The composition of the Provisional government was almost identical to that of the Progressive bloc. The only addition was socialist Alexander Kerensky, minister of justice. Prime Minister Prince Lvov surrounded himself with members of the Kadet Party, supporters of a constitutional monarchy. Despite the ambiguity of the legitimacy of the government and its liberal conservative composition, it initially enjoyed widespread popularity after ending all forms of repression and discrimination. The problem of the war, however, remained. It was in this area that the Soviet should have controlled policy. The workers and soldiers had all pledged loyalty to the Soviet, yet the leaders failed to take the initiative over policy.

The Soviet was happy to condemn Provisional government policy. The government, in turn, made little attempt to meet the demands of the Soviet. In effect there was a stalemate between the competing loci of power. The government hid behind its self-ordained provisionality, arguing that necessary fundamental changes should be postponed until the election of a constituent assembly. The election date was set but constantly postponed while parts of Russia were under enemy occupation; this meant continuing with the war until the Germans were forced into a retreat. The major national concerns—reallocation of land, economic reorganization, and industrial reforms—were sidelined. Lvov showed his enthusiasm for continuing Russian participation in the war by pledging on 6 March 1917 to "unswervingly carry out the agreements made with our allies." This set the tone for the Provisional government's policy and indicated that there was little hope of middle ground between the government and the Soviet.

With freedom of speech and assembly restored, the left wing was able to mobilize in spite of the lack of social reforms. The left also gained a new leader in April when Lenin returned from exile. The Bolsheviks, led in Lenin's absence by Stalin and Lev Kamenev, had become increasingly moderate. At their conference on 29 March 1917, a delegate calling for Bolshevik seizure of power was declared out of order. Lenin, however, reversed this stance. He argued that they should embark on a program of propaganda to convince the workers to prepare for a proletarian dictatorship. Trotsky returned to Russia in May and joined Lenin. Between them they led the campaign to the people under the slogans of "Peace, Bread and Land" and "All Power to the Soviets."

Circumstances favored the Bolsheviks. Despite the Soviet calling for "peace without annexation or indemnity," the Provisional government declared support for annexing territory and imposing reparations on defeated combatants. This represented a serious misreading of the public mood, and St. Petersburg again witnessed mass demonstrations by workers and soldiers. General Kornilov suggested to Lvov that the government must use force to restore order, and Lvov agreed. The Soviet, however, ordered all troops to remain in their barracks, and a political crisis ensued. Lvov and the majority of Kadets resigned from government.

By 16 June the most senior member still in government was Kerensky, minister of war. He decided that the only way to win back public support was to mount a new and successful offensive against the Germans. The resulting defeat and rout of the Russian army added further credibility to the Bolshevik arguments. Discipline collapsed, millions of soldiers took their weapons and deserted, and demonstrations escalated. Delays of the promised elections increased tensions. Despite the fact that the moderate left had taken control over the government, policy remained in stasis.

Kerensky used those troops who remained loyal to the government to crush demonstrations staged on 3-5 July and to seize the leading Bolsheviks. Lenin fled to Finland, denounced as a German spy; Trotsky was arrested for treason. Kornilov, with the agreement of Kerensky, began an advance on St. Petersburg with the intention of establishing a military dictatorship. Kornilov had to march his troops on foot, however, as the railway workers refused to transport them. Troops loyal to the Soviet met them on the outskirts of the capital and, rather than fighting, the regiments fraternized. Most of Kornilov's army abandoned his cause. Kornilov arrived in St. Petersburg virtually alone and was arrested. Although this could have been seen as a victory for democracy, without Kornilov's troops, the Provisional government was powerless. The troops ignored Kerensky's orders to return to the front, and on 16 October, in direct opposition to Kerensky's government, the Soviet formed the Military Revolutionary Committee to defend St. Petersburg against counterrevolution. The remaining Bolsheviks held the majority on the committee, which prompted the Mensheviks and social revolutionaries to refuse to participate; clearly there was little to stop them from seizing power.

Bolshevik Rule

From his exile in Finland, Lenin pressed the Bolsheviks to seize power. On 10 October the central committee of the party approved Lenin's policy. Two weeks later, on 24-25 October, Trotsky led the forces under the Military Revolutionary Committee in a coup. The workers and soldiers seized the main government and administrative buildings and arrested those who opposed them. On the afternoon of 25 October, Trotsky announced the end of the Provisional government; the majority of ministers were already under arrest.

At the Congress of Soviets, which met on 25 October, 390 (60 percent) of 650 delegates were Bolsheviks. The debate centered on the legality and character of the coup. The moderate left voiced their opposition to the Bolsheviks, doubting their motives, and withdrew. Only a small group of left-wing Social Revolutionaries remained to form a short-lived coalition. At the second congress on 8 November, Lenin took control. He declared that they should "proceed to the construction of the socialist order." In practice this meant immediately withdrawing from the war, embarking on a reorganization of the economic basis of society, and establishing a dictatorship consisting of workers and soldiers' deputies. Whether his intention was to establish a permanent dictatorship is unknown; the civil war that ensued defined the character of the Soviet regime as much as the ideology.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on 3 March 1918, marked Russia's exit from World War I and emasculated the Bolshevik state. The Baltic states, Finland, Poland, and the Ukraine were ceded. Within Russia, czarist supporters rallied to attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks. With the aid of American, British, and French forces, the "White Army" was able to mount a serious challenge to Lenin's "Red" forces. International support eroded, largely due to trade union pressure, and by 1920 the White Army was defeated.

With civil war and external interference as a backdrop, the "Red Terror" began. Strikes and peasant uprisings, protesting hardships and attempts by the state to exert control over industry and seize the land, were put down with similar force and brutality as had been employed by the czars. Lenin retreated somewhat from introducing socialism by force and launched the New Economic Policy in 1921. His incapacitation and death, however, paved the way for Stalin to reintroduce repressive methods for reorienting society. By the late 1920s the government had greater control and used fear more effectively than had the czarist regime. Thus the revolutions achieved little to ameliorate the hardships of the Russian people.

The revolutions, particularly the Bolshevik coup, changed the course of history. Not only did Marxist socialism become a viable alternative to capitalism, it was also seen as a threat by the Western world. Beyond the final three years of World War II in 1942-1945, the Western powers tried to contain Bolshevikinfluence, which led to the cold war. Despite a propaganda campaign, few could reconcile the tales of Soviet achievement with the reports of purges and state repression. The popular culture thus characterized the USSR as the "evil empire" until its fall in 1990. Within modern Russia the old hark back to the glory days of Stalinism; however, to the majority, Bolshevism was a tragedy for the Russian people.

Key Players

Kerensky, Alexander (1882-1970): Lvov's successor as head of the Provisional government who attempted unsuccessfully to reunite the Russian people behind the war. When the Bolsheviks took over, he fled to the United States and became a professor of politics.

Lenin (orig. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, 1870-1924): Revolutionary theorist and leader of the Bolshevik party. He founded the Soviet Union as an ideological state based on his writings, What Is to Be Done (1902) and The State and Revolution (1917).

Lvov, Georgy Yevgenyevich (1861-1925): Prince who was head of the Provisional government (March-July 1917) and architect of the zemstvo system of peasant self-government. After his resignation he emigrated to Paris.

Nicholas II (1868-1918): Emperor of all Russia (1894-1917).His refusal to accept the will of the people and to devolve some of his power caused a deep fissure between the royal leaders and the people. The Bolsheviks executed him and his family during the Russian Civil War.

Rasputin, Grigory (1869 or 1872-1916): A "holy man" who had great influence in the court of Czar Nicholas II because of his ability to treat the czarevitch's hemophilia. He was assassinated by members of the czar's family.

Stalin, Joseph (orig. Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili,1879-1953): Revolutionary guerrilla (1905-1917) who became a trusted servant of the Bolshevik leaders. He succeeded Lenin as leader of the Soviet Union and redesigned Marxist-Leninism as socialism in a single country.

Trotsky, Leon (1879-1940): Revolutionary theorist and influential leader of revolutionary cells in the Russian army in 1917. Although he was Lenin's chosen successor as leader of the Soviet Union, he failed to stop Stalin, went into exile, and was assassinated by Stalinist agents. He wrote a critique of Stalinism, The Revolution Betrayed (1936), and an autobiography, My Life (1930).

See also: Abolition of Serfdom; Bloody Sunday; Forced Labor: Soviet Union.



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—Darren G. Lilleker