Russian Revolution

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Russian Revolution, violent upheaval in Russia in 1917 that overthrew the czarist government.


The revolution was the culmination of a long period of repression and unrest. From the time of Peter I (Peter the Great), the czardom increasingly became an autocratic bureaucracy that imposed its will on the people by force, with wanton disregard for human life and liberty. As Western technology was adopted by the czars, Western humanitarian ideals were acquired by a group of educated Russians. Among this growing intelligentsia, the majority of whom were abstractly humanitarian and democratic, there were also those who were politically radical and even revolutionary. The university became a seat of revolutionary activity; nihilism, anarchism, and later Marxism were espoused and propagated.

The reforms of Alexander II brought the emancipation of the serfs (1861; see Emancipation, Edict of) and opened the way for industrial development. However, emancipation imposed harsh economic conditions on the peasants and did not satisfy their need for farmland. Industrialization concentrated people in urban centers, where the exploited working class was a receptive audience for radical ideas. A reactionary and often ignorant clergy kept religion static and persecuted religious dissenters. Pogroms were instituted against the Jews, which turned many radical Jews to Zionism. Non-Russian nationalities in the empire were repressed.

By 1903, Russia was divided into several political groups. The autocracy was upheld by the landed nobility and the higher clergy; the capitalists desired a constitutional monarchy; the liberal bourgeoisie made up the bulk of the group that later became the Constitutional Democratic party; peasants and intelligentsia were incorporated into the Socialist Revolutionary party; and the workers, influenced by Marxism, were represented in the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Social Democratic Labor party (see Bolshevism and Menshevism).

The Revolution of 1905

The Russian Revolution of 1905 began in St. Petersburg on Jan. 22 (Jan. 9, O.S.) when troops fired on a defenseless crowd of workers, who, led by a priest, were marching to the Winter Palace to petition Czar Nicholas II. This "bloody Sunday" was followed in succeeding months by a series of strikes, riots, assassinations, naval mutinies, and peasant outbreaks. These disorders, coupled with the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), which revealed the corruption and incompetence of the czarist regime, forced the government to promise the establishment of a consultative duma, or assembly, elected by limited franchise. Nonetheless, unsatisfied popular demands provoked a general strike, and in a manifesto issued in October the czar granted civil liberties and a representative duma to be elected democratically.

The manifesto split the groups that collectively had brought about the revolution. Those who were satisfied with the manifesto formed the Octobrist party. The liberals who wanted more power for the duma consolidated in the Constitutional Democratic party. The Social Democrats, who had organized a soviet, or workers' council, at St. Petersburg, attempted to continue the strike movement and compel social reforms. The government arrested the soviet and put down (Dec., 1905) a workers' insurrection in Moscow.

When order was restored, the czar promulgated the Fundamental Laws, under which the power of the duma was limited. Some attempt at economic reform was made by the czar's minister, Stolypin, but his efforts failed. At the same time Stolypin ruthlessly suppressed the revolutionary movement. When World War I broke out in 1914, most elements of Russia (except the Bolsheviks) united in supporting the war effort. However, the repeated military reverses, the acute food shortages, the appointment of inept ministers, and the intense suffering of the civilian population created a revolutionary climate by the end of 1916. The sinister influence of Rasputin over Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, whom Nicholas had left in charge of the government when he took personal command of the armed forces in 1915, destroyed all support for the czar except among extreme reactionaries.

The February Revolution of 1917

By Mar., 1917 (the end of Feb., 1917, O.S., thus the name February Revolution), most of the workers in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow were striking and rioting for higher food rations. Many of the soldiers refused to suppress the insurgents; military insubordination and mutiny spread. Nicholas II ineffectually sought to put down the workers by force and also dissolved (Mar. 11, N.S./Feb. 26, O.S.) the Duma. The Duma refused to obey, and the Petrograd insurgents took over the capital. Nicholas was forced to abdicate (Mar. 15, N.S./Mar. 2, O.S.) at Pskov after the Duma had appointed a provisional government composed mainly of moderates; it was headed by Prince Lvov and included Milyukov and Kerensky.

Although most Russians welcomed the end of autocracy, that was the only point on which they agreed. The provisional government had little popular support, and its authority was limited by the Petrograd workers' and soldiers' soviet, which controlled the troops, communications, and transport. The soviet furthered the military breakdown by establishing soldiers' committees throughout the army and making officership elective.

Despite its strength, the soviet at first did not openly seize power; the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks who initially dominated it believed that at this stage of the revolution the bourgeois provisional government should rule. The government's program called for a general amnesty, broad civil liberties, and a constituent assembly to be elected by universal suffrage. This failed to address two burning issues—continuation of the war and redistribution of land. The government announced that the question of land distribution could only be handled by the future constituent assembly.

In March the soviet demanded peace. Milyukov, the foreign minister, was forced to resign in May after demonstrations against his insistence on continuing the war. The cabinet was reorganized and several other socialists, in addition to Kerensky, were added. Kerensky took over as minister of war, and Viktor Chernov, a Socialist Revolutionary, became minister of agriculture.

The October Revolution of 1917

In Apr., 1917, Lenin and other revolutionaries returned to Russia after having been permitted by the German government to cross Germany. The Germans hoped that the Bolsheviks would undermine the Russian war effort. Lenin galvanized the small and theretofore cautious Bolshevik party into action. The courses he advocated were simplified into the powerful slogans "end the war," "all land to the peasants," and "all power to the soviets."

The failure of the all-out military offensive in July increased discontent with the provisional government, and disorders and violence in Petrograd led to popular demands for the soviet to seize power. The Bolsheviks assumed direction of this movement, but the soviet still held back. The government then took strong measures against the Bolshevik press and leaders. Nevertheless, the position of the provisional government was precarious.

Prince Lvov resigned in July because of his opposition to Chernov's cautious attempts at land reform. He was replaced by Kerensky, who formed a coalition cabinet with a socialist majority. Army discipline deteriorated after the failure of the July offensive. The provisional government and the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary leaders in the soviet lost support from the impatient soldiers and workers, who turned to the Bolsheviks.

Although the Bolsheviks were a minority in the first all-Russian congress of soviets (June), they continued to gain influence. Conservative and even some moderate elements, who wished to limit the power of the soviets, rallied around General Kornilov, who attempted (September, N.S./August, O.S.) to seize Petrograd by force. At Kerensky's request, the Bolsheviks and other socialists came to the defense of the provisional government and the attempt was put down. From mid-September on the Bolsheviks had a majority in the Petrograd soviet, and Lenin urged the soviet to seize power.

On the night of Nov. 6 (Oct. 24, O.S.), the Bolsheviks staged an coup, engineered by Trotsky; aided by the workers' Red Guard and the sailors of Kronstadt, they captured the government buildings and the Winter Palace in Petrograd. A second all-Russian congress of soviets met and approved the coup after the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries walked out of the meeting. A cabinet, known as the Council of People's Commissars, was set up with Lenin as chairman, Trotsky as foreign commissar, Rykov as interior commissar, and Stalin as commissar of nationalities. The second congress immediately called for cessation of hostilities, gave private and church lands to village soviets, and abolished private property.

Moscow was soon taken by force, and local groups of Bolshevik workers and soldiers gained control of most of the other cities of Russia. The remaining members of the provisional government were arrested (Kerensky had fled the country). Old marriage and divorce laws were discarded, the church was attacked, workers' control was introduced into the factories, the banks were nationalized, and a supreme economic council was formed to run the economy. The long-promised constituent assembly met in Jan., 1918, but its composition being predominantly non-Bolshevik. it was soon disbanded by Bolshevik troops. The Cheka (political police), directed by Dzerzhinsky, was set up to liquidate the opposition.

Negotiations with the Central powers, which had begun late in 1917, resulted in the Russian acceptance (Mar., 1918) of the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (see Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of). Most of the lands ceded to Germany under the treaty were home to non-Russian nationalities. The ceded lands and Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan had proclaimed their independence from Russia after the Bolshevik coup. Following Germany's defeat by the Allies and the withdrawal of German troops, the Bolsheviks regained some of the lost territory (Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) during the Russian civil war.

The Civil War of 1918–20

The civil war between the Bolsheviks (Reds) and the anti-Bolsheviks (Whites) ravaged Russia until 1920. The Whites represented all shades of anti-Communist groups, including members of the constituent assembly. Several of their leaders favored setting up a military dictatorship, but few were outspoken czarists.

Armed opposition to the Soviet regime centered at first in the south, where the volunteers under Kornilov (succeeded by Denikin) joined forces with the Don Cossacks. The Ukraine was the scene of fighting after the Germans evacuated it following the general armistice of Nov. 11, 1918; it was seized by the Bolsheviks (early 1919), by Denikin's forces (Aug.–Dec., 1919), again by the Bolsheviks (Dec., 1919), and finally by the Poles (May, 1920), with whom war had broken out over the Russo-Polish frontier question. Denikin in the meantime had turned over his command to General P. N. Wrangel, who after the conclusion of the Russo-Polish armistice was driven by the Bolsheviks into the Crimea and was obliged to evacuate his forces to Constantinople (Nov., 1920).

The civil war in the east was equally fatal to the Whites. A government was organized at Samara by a group of Socialist Revolutionaries who had been members of the constituent assembly. It received the support of the Czech Legion, which controlled the Trans-Siberian RR, but it merged (Sept., 1918) with a more conservative government set up at Omsk, in Siberia, and a few weeks later fell under the dictatorship of Admiral Kolchak. Although at first successful, Kolchak's forces were eventually driven to the Russian Far East; by Jan., 1920, all Siberia except Vladivostok and some other Far Eastern territory was in Bolshevik hands.

The civil war was complicated by Allied intervention. In N Russia, British, French, and American forces occupied (Mar., 1918) Murmansk and later Arkhangelsk with the stated purpose of protecting Allied stores against possible seizure by the Germans; they were evacuated only in Nov., 1919. In the Russian Far East the Allies occupied Vladivostok, which the Japanese held until 1922.

The Bolshevik military victory was due partly to the lack of cooperation among the various White commanders and partly to the remarkable reorganization of the Red forces after Trotsky became commissar for war. It was won, however, only at the price of immense sacrifice; Russia by 1920 was ruined and devastated. Atrocities were committed throughout the civil war by both sides.

For the history of Russia after the civil war, see Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich.


See L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (tr. 1932); E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–1923 (3 vol., 1950–53); R. Medvedev, The October Revolution (1985); L. Schapiro, The Russian Revolution of 1917 (1986); W. B. Lincoln, Red Victory (1990); O. Figes, The People's Tragedy (1997); E. Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War (2008).

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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


Acton, Edward, Vladimir Iu Cherniaev, and William G. Rosenberg, eds. 1997. Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 19141921. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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

Galili, Ziva. 1989. The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Rabinowitch, Alexander. 1976. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. New York: W. W. Norton.

Rosenberg, William G. 1974. The Liberals in the Russian Revolution; the Constitutional Democratic Party, 19171921. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smith, S. A. 1983. Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 191718. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Steinberg, Mark D., and Vladimir M. Khrustalëv. 1995. The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Suny, Ronald, and Arthur Adams, eds. 1990. The Russian Revolution and Bolshevik Victory: Visions and Revisions. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

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

Ronald Grigor Suny

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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.