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 (1870–1924), 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 (1914–1918), 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 Women’s 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 (1894–1917), 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 Russia’s 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 (1879–1940), 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 day’s meeting (January 5 , 1918), however, the Soviet government dispersed the Constituent Assembly, Russia’s 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 d’Etat; 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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Ronald Grigor Suny