Russian Revolution

views updated May 18 2018

Russian Revolution


The revolutionary crises of 1917 had their origins in the deep social and political polarization in Russian society that intensified in the first decades of the twentieth century. Peasants suffered from land shortages, periodic hunger, high incidence of disease and early mortality, the burdens of taxation and rents, and military recruitment. Factory workers and artisans lived in squalid tenements or hovels and worked long hours in dangerous conditions. The better-off middle and upper classes were not only more literate, educated, and socially mobile than the peasants, but lived under a different code of law and enjoyed privileges that the ordinary villagers did not. Through the nineteenth century politically-engaged Russian intellectuals gravitated from liberalism and moderation toward revolutionary socialism, at first oriented toward the peasants (populism or narodnichestvo ) and later, by the 1890s, increasingly focused on the urban workers (Marxism, Social Democracy).

Marxism provided a sociological and economic framework for Russian activists, a view of the way the world worked under capitalism and the European future toward which Russia was headed. Unlike the pro-peasant socialists or populists, who eventually formed the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Marxists believed that Russia could not avoid industrialization and capitalism and had to pass through two successive revolutions, a bourgeois-democratic revolution followed by a proletarian-socialist revolution in which the working people would come to power to build socialism. In 1903 the principal Marxist organization, the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, split into two rival factions, the moderate Mensheviks, who were usually more willing to work with other democratic parties, like the populists and liberals, and the more radical Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin (18701924), who generally favored a more rapid transition to the socialist revolution.

However wide the social divide between the state and society in the decades before World War I (19141918), the war expanded the gulf and radicalized the workers and peasants. Millions of peasants were turned into soldiers, given guns, and shown that a wider world existed beyond the edges of the village. The February Revolution began on February 23 [Julian calendar] (March 8 on the Gregorian calendar, International Womens Day) with working-class women demanding bread in the cold, dark streets of Petrograd. Within days, hundreds of thousands of Petrograd workers were in the streets, and when Cossacks and ordinary soldiers refused to fire on the crowds, the strike turned into a revolution. The tsar, Nicholas II (18941917), abdicated, as did his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, and the monarchy came to an end.

On March 1 (14), middle-class members of the duma formed a provisional government, headed by Prince Georgii Lvov and including leaders of the major liberal and conservative parties. At the same time, workers and soldiers formed their own representative bodies, the soviets (councils) of workers and soldiers deputies, for though their leaders were unwilling to take power on their own, they were suspicious of the intentions of the bourgeois members of the provisional government. Russia now had not one unchallenged government but dual power, two competing authorities. In April, the leaders of the Soviet confronted Foreign Minister Paul Miliukov, who insisted on Russias imperial claims to Constantinople and the Dardanelles. Workers and soldiers poured into the streets, and forced Miliukov to resign. Moderate socialist leaders of the Soviet reluctantly joined the bourgeois government, but in the next six months the various coalition governments were unable either to end the world war or to alleviate the social divisions in Russian society. While the government wavered, the Bolsheviks won majorities in the factory committees and successfully agitated against the war at the fronts. Lenin, who had returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland in April, staked out a radical program for transferring all power to the soviets, ending the war, and moving the revolution rapidly into a socialist phase. The Bolsheviks were the only major party that provided a clear alternative to the government and their moderate socialist allies.

To please the Western Allies and contribute to the war effort against the Central Powers, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky launched a disastrous offensive against the enemy in June, but as news of Russian defeats reached the capital, workers, sailors, and soldiers demonstrated against the war and the government, even calling on the Soviet to take power in its own name. The moderate socialists refused, while militant elements supporting the Bolsheviks pushed to seize power. When order was restored by troops loyal to the government and soviets, Lenin was forced to go into hiding in Finland. Lvov resigned, and Kerensky formed a new coalition government. Liberal and conservative forces became more wary of the lower classes and called for an authoritarian government to restore order. The clumsy attempt by General Lavr Kornilov to establish a new authority, however, ended with the lower classes moving swiftly toward the Bolsheviks and electing them the majority party in both the Petrograd and Moscow soviets by early September.

In the second half of October, the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, led by Leon Trotsky (18791940), began establishing its authority over the garrisons of the city. On the morning of October 24 (November 6), Kerensky moved to suppress the Bolsheviks and prevent the insurrection that everyone knew was coming. In the crucial hours, however, the prime minister found his support weak or non-existent. Though workers did not actively participate in the insurrection, the Bolsheviks found the military muscle to take power. By dawn on October 25 (November 7) the city was in the hands of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, and Lenin went before the Second Congress of Soviets and declared that power had passed to the soviets. When the moderate socialists, the Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, protested the Bolshevik seizure of power and walked out of the Congress, they essentially left the Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries to form a new government. Though Lenin preferred a one-party government, within a month he conceded seats to the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and until March 1918 Soviet Russia had a Left Socialist coalition government.

In November 1917 elections were held to a Constituent Assembly, a kind of founding congress for the new republic. The Bolsheviks failed to win a majority, while the Right Socialist Revolutionaries emerged with the largest plurality. After allowing a single days meeting (January 5 [18], 1918), however, the Soviet government dispersed the Constituent Assembly, Russias most freely elected parliamentary body until the early 1990s. In the ensuing civil war the communists did not hesitate to use violence and terror, and as atrocities occurred on both sides, much of the democratic promise of the revolution of 1917 was lost.

SEE ALSO Bolshevism; Communism; Coup dEtat; Democracy; Left and Right; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Leninism; Marxism; Monarchy; Revolution; Socialism; Totalitarianism; Trotsky, Leon; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Violence


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Figes, Orlando. 1998. A Peoples Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, 18911924. New York: Penguin Books.

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Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. 1981. The February Revolution: Petrograd 1917. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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Wildman, Allan K. 19801987. The End of the Russian Imperial Army. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ronald Grigor Suny

Russian Revolution

views updated May 23 2018

Russian Revolution (1917) Events in Russia that resulted in the founding of a republic (March) and in the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks (November). (In the calendar in use at the time, the two stages took place in February and October.) Widespread discontent, a strong revolutionary movement, and the hardships of World War I forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate in March. A provisional government was formed by liberals in the Duma (parliament), which represented the middle classes. Its aim was to make Russia into a liberal democracy and to defeat Germany. Workers and peasants had different desires: greater social and economic equality and an end to the war. The provisional government faced a challenge from the powerful, socialist soviet in Petrograd (St Petersburg), which in May formed a coalition government that included Alexander Kerensky, prime minister from July, and other socialists. The launching of a new military offensive, combined with disappointing reforms, discredited the government and the parties associated with it. Soviets sprang up in many cities; and in rural areas, peasants seized land, soldiers deserted the front. In the cities, the Bolsheviks secured growing support in the soviets. In November, at the order of Lenin, they carried out a successful coup in Petrograd. The Kerensky government folded, but a long civil war ensued before Lenin and his followers established their authority.