RUSSIAN REVOLUTION : AN INTRODUCTION

  • The Russian Revolution took place in 1917, during the final phase of World War I. It removed Russia from the war and brought about the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), replacing Russia’s traditional monarchy with the world’s first Communist state.
  • The revolution happened in stages through two separate coups in 1917:
    • February Revolution:
      • February Russian Revolution (March in the Gregorian calendar; the older Julian calendar was in use in Russia at the time) toppled the Russian monarchy and established a Provisional Government.
      • This revolution overthrew the Tsar and set up a moderate provisional government.
    • October Revolution:
      • When the provisional government coped no better than the Tsar, it was itself over thrown by a second uprising called October Russian Revolution.
      • The October Russian Revolution placed the Bolsheviks as the leaders of Russia, resulting in the creation of the world’s first communist country.

BACKGROUND AND CAUSES OF RUSSIAN REVOLUTION 1917

A) Lack of Leadership of Tsar Nicholas II:

  • By the turn of the twentieth century, Russian society had never been more divided, nor had a Russian tsar (Emperor) ever been so far estranged from his people.
  • Tsar Nicholas II, who had come to power in 1894, had never shown leadership skills or a particular desire to rule, but with the death of his father, Alexander III, the Russian crown was thrust upon him.

B) Revolution of 1905:

  • The Revolution of 1905 was a wave of mass political and social unrest that spread through vast areas of the Russian Empire. Some of it was directed against the government, while some was undirected. It included worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies.
  • It led to the establishment of limited constitutional monarchy, the State Duma of the Russian Empire, the multi-party system, and the Russian Constitution of 1906.
    • The Duma became a constant thorn in Czar Nicholas’s side, as increasingly radical political parties emerged into the open after years of existing underground.
    • Nicholas dealt with the problem by repeatedly dissolving the Duma, forcing new elections.

C) Economic and social factors:

  • Change was facilitated by the physical movement of growing numbers of peasant villagers who migrated to and from industrial and urban environments.
  • Living in cities, workers encountered material goods such as they had never seen while in the village. There were many encouragements to expect more from life. In cities, they were exposed to new ideas about the social and political order.
  • Workers also had good reasons for discontent:
    • overcrowded housing with deplorable sanitary conditions,
    • long hours at work,
    • constant risk of injury and death from very poor safety and sanitary conditions,
    • harsh discipline, and
    • inadequate wages
  • Most of these were the result of rapid industrialisation of Russia.
  • The social causes of the Russian Revolution mainly came from centuries of oppression of the lower classes by the Tsarist regime, and Nicholas’s failures in World War I.
    • While rural agrarian peasants had been emancipated from serfdom in 1861, they still resented paying redemption payments to the state, and demanded communal tender of the land they worked.
  • The World War I only added to the chaos. Conscription swept up the unwilling in all parts of Russia.
    • The vast demand for factory production of war supplies and workers caused many more labor riots and strikes. Workers abandoned the cities in droves to look for food.
    • The soldiers themselves, who suffered from a lack of equipment and protection from the elements, began to turn against the Tsar.

D) Political issues:

  • Many sections of the country had reason to be dissatisfied with the existing autocracy.
    • Nicholas II was a deeply conservative ruler and maintained a strict authoritarian system.
    • Individuals and society in general were expected to show self-restraint, devotion to community, deference to the social hierarchy and a sense of duty to the country.
    • Religious faith helped bind all of these tenets together as a source of comfort and reassurance in the face of difficult conditions and as a means of political authority exercised through the clergy.
    • Even after the 1905 revolution spurred the Tsar to decree limited civil rights and democratic representation, he worked to limit even these liberties in order to preserve the ultimate authority of the crown.

E) Factors Related to World War I:

  • War as a tool to quiet protests:
    • One of the Tsar’s principal rationales for risking war in 1914 was his desire to restore the prestige that Russia had lost amid the debacles of the Russo-Japanese war. Nicholas sought to foster a greater sense of national unity with a war against a common enemy.
    • The outbreak of war in August 1914 initially served to quiet the prevalent social and political protests, focusing hostilities against a common external enemy, but this patriotic unity did not last long.
      • As the war dragged on inconclusively, war-weariness gradually took its toll.
      • Instead of restoring Russia’s political and military standing, World War I led to military defeats that undermined both the monarchy and society in general to the point of collapse.
  • Entry of Ottoman Empire distrusts trade route:
    • After the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914, Russia was deprived of a major trade route through Ottoman Empire, which followed with a minor economic crisis, in which Russia became incapable of providing munitions to their army in the years leading to 1917.
  • Rasputin and Alexandra:
    • In the autumn of 1915, Nicholas had taken direct command of the army, personally overseeing Russia’s main theatre of war and leaving his ambitious but incapable wife Alexandra in charge of the government.
    • Reports of corruption and incompetence in the Imperial government began to emerge, and the growing influence of Rasputin (a self-professed ‘holy man’ and a mystical adviser in the court of Nicholas II) in the Imperial family was widely resented.
      • Rasputin was a “fatal disease” to the Tsarist regime. In December, a small group of nobles assassinated Rasputin.
  • Staggering losses to Russian Forces:
    • In 1915, when Germany shifted its focus of attack to the Eastern front, the superior German army – better led, better trained and better supplied – was terrifyingly effective against the ill-equipped Russian forces, driving the Russians out of Galicia, as well as Russian Poland.
    • Staggering losses of solders and territory played a definite role in the mutinies and revolts that began to occur.
  • Economic crisis, Food crisis, Supply shortages, Strikes, Crimes etc.:
    • By the end of 1915, there were manifold signs that the economy was breaking down under the heightened strain of wartime demand.
    • The main problems were food shortages and rising prices.
    • The war developed a weariness in the city, owing to a lack of food in response to the disruption of agriculture.
    • Food scarcity had become a considerable problem in Russia, but the cause of this did not lie in any failure of the harvests.
    • The indirect reason was that the government, in order to finance the war, had been printing off millions of rouble notes, and by 1917 inflation had made prices increase up to four times what they had been in 1914.
    • The peasantry was consequently faced with the higher cost of purchases.
    • At the same time rising prices led to demands for higher wages in the factories.
    • Strikes increased steadily from the middle of 1915, and so did crime; but for the most part, people suffered and endured, scouring the city, prostitution for food.
    • Nicholas was blamed for all of these crises, and what little support he had left began to crumble.
      • As discontent grew, the State Duma issued a warning to Nicholas in November 1916.
      • It stated that, inevitably, a terrible disaster would grip the country unless a constitutional form of government was put in place.
      • In typical fashion, however, Nicholas ignored them, and Russia’s Tsarist regime collapsed a few months later during the February Revolution of 1917.
      • One year later, the Tsar and his entire family were executed by Bolsheviks.
  • Spread of Liberalism and Socialism during the world war:
    • The Liberals were now better placed to voice their complaints, since they were participating in war more fully through a variety of voluntary organizations.
    • This gave renewed encouragement to political ambitions, and, in September 1915, many in the Duma demanded the forming of a responsible government. The Tsar rejected these proposals.

F) Demand for liberal reforms by new middle class

G) Influence of Western Ideas:

  • In spite of the attempts of Czars to seal Russia hermetically against the liberal and radical ideas of the West, the influence of Western ideas filtered into the country and produced movements.

H) Czar’s policy of Russification:

  • (as Jews, Poles, Uzbeks etc were among many ethnic groups in Russian Empire and they opposed Russification)

I) Weaknesses of the regime

  • Failure of the land reforms
  • Industrial unrest
  • Government repression
  • Revival of the revolutionary parties
    • One of the Social Democrat leaders was Vladimir Lenin, who helped to edit the revolutionary newspaper Iskra (The Spark). It was over an election to the editorial board of Iskra in 1903 that the party had split into Lenin’s supporters, the Bolsheviks (the Russian word for ‘majority’), and the rest, the Mensheviks (minority).
      • Bolsheviks:
        • Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted a small, disciplined party of professional revolutionaries who would work full-time to bring about revolution; because the industrial workers were in a minority, Lenin believed they must work with the peasants as well, and get them involved in revolutionary activity.
      • Mensheviks:
        • The Mensheviks, on the other hand, were happy to have party membership open to anybody who cared to join; they believed that a revolution could not take place in Russia until the country was fully industrialized and industrial workers were in a big majority over peasants; they had very little faith in co-operation from peasants, who were actually one of the most conservative groups in society.
    • Social Revolutionaries:
      • They were another revolutionary party; they were not Marxists – they did not approve of increasing industrialization and did not think in terms of a proletarian revolution.
      • After the overthrow of the tsarist regime, they wanted a mainly agrarian society based on peasant communities operating collectively.

THE TWO REVOLUTIONS : FEBURARY/MARCH AND OCTOBER/NOVEMBER REVOLUTION 1917

A) The February 1917 Revolution

  • The February Revolution took place in the context of heavy military setbacks during the First World War (1914–18), which left much of the Russian army in a state of mutiny. The February Revolution (March 1917) was a revolution focused around Petrograd (now St. Petersburg).
  • On Thursday, February 23, 1917, women workers (also other workers) in Petrograd left their factories and entered the streets to protest.
    • An estimated 90,000 women marched through the streets, shouting “Bread” and “Down With the Autocracy!” and “Stop the War!”
    • These women were tired, hungry, and angry. They worked long hours in miserable conditions in order to feed their families because their husbands and fathers were at the front, fighting in World War I. They wanted change.
  • The following day, more than 150,000 men and women took to the streets to protest. Soon more people joined them and by Saturday, February 25, the city of Petrograd was basically shut down.
  • Violence and Army Mutiny:
    • With news of the unrest, Tsar Nicholas II, who was away visiting his troops on the front, sent a telegram to Petrograd’s military commander on February 25, ordering him to bring an end to the riots by the next day.
    • In their efforts to carry out the Tsar’s order, several troops of a local guard regiment fired upon the crowds on February 26.
    • The regiment fell into chaos, as many soldiers felt more empathy for the crowds than for the Tsar. The next day, more than 80,000 troops mutinied and joined with the crowds, in many cases directly fighting the police.
  • The Duma and the Petrograd Soviet:
    • During this period, two political groups in Russia quickly recognized the significance of what was developing and began to discuss actively how it should be handled.
      • The Duma (the state legislature) was already in active session but was under orders from the tsar to disband. However, the Duma continued to meet in secret and soon came to the conclusion that the unrest in Russia was unlikely to be brought under control as long as Nicholas II remained in power.
      • During the same period, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (or Petrograd Soviet) was a city council of Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), the capital of the Russian Empire and it was an organization of revolutionary-minded workers and soldiers dominated by the Menshevik Party, convened on February 27. They immediately began to call for full-scale revolution and an end to the monarchy altogether.
  • The Tsar’s Abdication:
    • After mutinies in the army and government, the Duma and military leaders placed heavy pressure on the tsar to resign.
    • Nicholas II abdicated in favor of his brother Michael rather than his son, whom he believed was too sickly to bear the burden of being tsar, even with a regent in place.
    • Unfortunately nobody had made sure that Michael would accept the throne, so when he refused, the Russian monarchy came to an end.
    • Responding to this unexpected turn of events, leading Duma members assumed the role of being the country’s provisional government. The provisional government was to serve temporarily, until a Constituent Assembly could be elected later in the year to decide formally on the country’s future government.
  • Provisional Government and The Petrograd Soviet:
    • Two contending groups emerged out of the chaos to claim leadership of Russia.
      • The first was made up of former Duma members and the second was the Petrograd Soviet (workers’ councils).
      • The former Duma members represented the middle and upper classes while the Soviet represented workers and soldiers.
    • Most people expected the autocracy of the tsarist system to be replaced by a democratic republic with an elected parliament. The Duma, struggling to take control, set up a mainly liberal provisional government. The Petrograd Soviet allowed this because they felt that Russia was not economically advanced enough to undergo a true socialist revolution.
    • Though often at odds, the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet found themselves cooperating out of necessity.
      • With every major decision, the two groups coordinated with each other. One man, an ambitious lawyer named Alexander Kerensky, ended up a member of both groups and acted as a liaison between them.
    • During this chaotic period there were frequent mutinies, protests and many strikes. The Bolsheviks turned workers militias under their control into the Red Guards (later the Red Army) over which they exerted substantial control.
    • Works of Provincial Government:
      • Within the first few weeks after the February Revolution, the Provisional Government
        • abolished the death penalty,
        • granted amnesty for all political prisoners and those in exile,
        • ended religious and ethnic discrimination, and
        • granted civil liberties.
      • What they did not deal with was an end to the war, land reform, or better quality of life for the Russian people. The Provisional Government believed Russia should honor its commitments to its allies in World War I and continue fighting.
    • Afterward, many political groups competed for power, but they did so relatively peacefully.
    • The two main groups, the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet, disagreed completely about the direction that Russia should take, yet they did manage to work with each other.
    • Meanwhile, the various rival political parties also developed cooperative attitudes and worked with one another. The arrival of Lenin in Russia in April 1917, however, immediately changed the situation.

B) Lenin and the Bolsheviks

  • Lenin’s Return to Russia:
    • During the February Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had been living in exile in Switzerland. Once the Provisional Government allowed back political exiles, the government of Germany deliberately facilitated Lenin’s return to his homeland in the spring of 1917 from Zurich.
    • Lenin arrived in Petrograd on the evening of April 3, 1917.
      • His arrival was enthusiastically awaited, and a large crowd greeted him and cheered as he stepped off the train.
      • To their surprise, however, Lenin expressed hostility toward most of them, denouncing both the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet.
      • He reminded the people that the country was still at war and that the Provisional Government had done nothing to give the people bread and land.
  • The April Theses:
    • In the days following his arrival, Lenin gave several speeches calling for the overthrow of the provisional government. On April 7, the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda published the ideas contained in Lenin’s speeches, which collectively came to be known as the April Theses. It was a series of 10 directives issued by Lenin mostly aimed at Bolsheviks.
    • “All Power to the Soviets”:
      • Lenin pulled his closest supporters together defined his movement by the slogan “All power to the soviets” as he sought to agitate the masses against the provisional government.
  • Failed early coup attempts:
    • From the moment Lenin returned to Russia, he began to work toward seizing power for the Bolsheviks using every means available.
    • During the spring and summer, the Bolsheviks would make several more attempts to bring about a second revolution by inciting the masses.
    • Their repeated failures made the Bolsheviks realized that they still lacked adequate support to carry off a revolution. It also made it clear to Lenin that a repeat performance of the February Revolution was not to be and that a much more organized, top-down approach would be required.
  • The Bolsheviks and the Military:
    • Lenin recognized that the current Russian leaders’ hesitation to pull the country out of World War I was a weakness that could be exploited.
    • He knew that after four years of massive losses and humiliating defeats, the army was ready to come home and was on the verge of revolting.
    • Lenin demanded that Russia exit the war immediately, even if it meant heavy reparations and a loss of territory. With this position, Lenin received growing support throughout the Russian armed forces, which would ultimately be key to his seizing power. Thus, he launched an aggressive propaganda campaign directed specifically at the Russian troops still serving on the front.
  • Russia’s Final War Offensive in 1917:
    • In June, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky ordered the Russian army to undertake a renewed offensive along the Austrian front in World War I.
    • Prior to the offensive’s start, Kerensky personally toured the front and delivered rousing speeches to the troops.
    • Once under way, the Russian troops made brief progress against the Austrians and even captured several thousand prisoners. Within a few days, however, German reinforcements appeared, and the Russian troops fled in a general panic.
    • The operation was a complete failure and weakened Kerensky politically.
    • Recognizing another opportunity, Lenin immediately stepped up his efforts to agitate the Russian masses and eagerly waited for the right moment to stage an armed uprising.
  • The July Putsch (July Days):
    • On 3 July, 1917 there was a huge demonstration of workers, soldiers and sailors, who marched on the Tauride Palace where both the provisional government and the Petrograd soviet were meeting. They demanded that the soviet should take power, but the members refused to take the responsibility.
    • The government brought loyal troops from the front to restore order and accused the Bolsheviks of trying to launch an uprising; it was reported, falsely, that Lenin was a German spy.
    • At this, the popularity of the Bolsheviks declined rapidly. Lenin fled to Finland and other leaders were arrested.
    • Kerensky, for his effectiveness in neutralizing the Bolsheviks, was promoted from minister of war to prime minister.
    • The failure of the July Putsch made Lenin realise that it was too early to launch a full-scale uprising and that he could not carry out a revolution simply by manipulating crowds of demonstrators.

C) The October 1917 Revolution

  • The Red Resurgence:
    • During late August and September, the Bolsheviks enjoyed a sudden growth in strength, following their failures during the summer.
    • On August 31, they finally achieved a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and on September 5, they won a similar victory in the Moscow Sovietthough they were in a minority in the country as a whole.
    • Lenin, fearing arrest after the events of July, continued to hide in rural areas near the Finnish border. As time went on, he become more and more impatient and began calling urgently for the ouster of the provisional government.
    • Although Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky’s authority was faltering, the provisional government was coming closer to organizing the Constituent Assembly, which would formally establish a republican government in Russia. Elections for the assembly were scheduled for November 12. Lenin knew that once this process started, it would be far more difficult to seize power while still preserving the appearance of legitimacy.
  • Internal Opposition:
    • Before a revolution could happen, Lenin faced considerable opposition from within his own party.
    • Many still felt that the timing was wrong and that Lenin had made no serious plans for how the country would be administered after power was seized.
    • On October 10, shortly following Lenin’s return to Petrograd, the Bolshevik Party leadership (the Central Committee) held a fateful meeting.
      • Lenin delivered an impassioned speech in which he restated his reasons for staging the uprising sooner rather than later.
      • By the end of the meeting, it was voted ten to two in favor of a revolution to oust the provisional government. What had yet to be decided was precisely when the revolution would happen.
  • Final Plans:
    • A Second Congress of Soviets was now in the works, scheduled for October 25, and the Bolsheviks were confident that they would have its overwhelming support, since they had taken pains to invite only those delegates likely to sympathize with their cause.
    • Just to be sure, however, the Bolsheviks decided to hold the revolution on the day before the meeting and then to ask the Congress to approve their action after the act.
    • By this point, the Bolsheviks had an army of sorts, under the auspices of the Military Revolutionary Committee, technically an organ of the Petrograd Soviet.
  • October 24 and 25:
    • On October 24 , the first day of the Russian Revolution, Bolshevik troops made their way to preassigned positions and systematically occupied crucial points in the capital, including the main telephone and telegraph offices, banks, railroad stations, post offices, and most major bridges.
    • Not a single shot was fired, as the junkers assigned to guard these sites either fled or were disarmed without incident. Even the headquarters of the General Staff—the army headquarters—was taken without resistance.
    • By the morning of October 25, Petrograd was in the hands of the Bolsheviks — all except the Winter Palace where the leaders of the Provisional Government remained. Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky successfully fled but by the following day, troops loyal to the Bolsheviks infiltrated the Winter Palace.
  • The Second Congress of Soviets:
    • Several important decisions were made.
      • The first motion approved was Lenin’s Decree on Peace, which declared Russia’s wish for World War I to end but did not go so far as to declare a cease-fire.
      • The next matter to be passed was the Decree on Land, which officially socialized all land in the country for redistribution to peasant communes.
  • Lenin and the Bolsheviks consolidate their control:
    • Life in Russia after October 25, 1917, changed very little at first.
      • There was no widespread panic among the upper classes, and the people of Petrograd were generally indifferent.
      • Few expected the new government to last for long, and few understood what it would mean if it did.
    • The Bolsheviks were in control in Petrograd as a result of their coup, but in some places the takeover was not so smooth.
    • Country areas were more difficult to deal with, and at first the peasants were only lukewarm towards the new government. They preferred the Social Revolutionaries, who also promised them land and who saw the peasants as the backbone of the nation, whereas the Bolsheviks seemed to favour industrial workers.
    • As soon as the other political groups recovered from the shock of the Bolshevik coup, there was bound to be some determined opposition.
  • However bloodless the Russian Revolution initially may have been, it would ultimately cost tens of millions of Russian lives and shock the nation so deeply that it has not yet come to terms with what happened.
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