The Russian Revolution

russian revolution

Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader who seized control of Russia in October 1917.

In the first days of 1917 Russia was on the brink of collapse. Decimated and exhausted after three years of war and mismanagement, the Russian people were eager for change and deliverance. Meanwhile Russia’s autocratic ruler, Tsar Nicholas II, clung stubbornly to power, believing it to be his divine birthright. But the people, not God, would shape the future of Russia. In February 1917 a peaceful march in Russia’s capital city grew into a torrent of protest. Within a week the tsar had been toppled from power and replaced by an interim government, filled with liberals and moderates. This new government lasted barely six months before it too was overthrown and replaced, this time by radical socialists. This group, the Bolsheviks, struggled to consolidate their power by suppressing dissent and eliminating opponents. They also began planning Russia’s transformation: from a backward economic state organised on medieval principles into a modern industrial and technological superpower. This transformation alone makes Russian Revolution one of the most significant events in modern history. The rise of socialism in Russia changed the world and affected the lives of billions. The revolution reverberated through the 20th century, shaping attitudes, ideologies and international relations. It inspired similar revolutions and socialist movements around the world, in places as diverse as Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, China, Korea, Cuba and Indonesia. The rise of the Soviet Union challenged the global hegemony of the United States and gave rise to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war and annihilation.

The story of the Russian Revolution is filled with moments of drama, tragedy, pathos and folly. The old regime in Russia was ruled by Tsar Nicholas II. Blinkered by outmoded beliefs about religion, tradition and autocracy, Nicholas was a shy and gentle figure – but he was also trapped in the past and guided by tradition and blind faith rather than pragmatism. Nicholas governed a massive empire housing more than 130 million people and covering one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass – yet he knew little about the business of ruling and was too stubborn to learn. Instead, the tsar relied on ministers and advisors, most of whom were either barely competent or simply Nicholas what he wished to hear. The tsar was also coerced by his domineering wife Alexandra, a strong-minded woman with an assertive personality but no more wisdom or foresight than her husband. Deeply religious and fearful for her chronically ill son, Alexandra became enraptured with Rasputin, a Siberian-born faith healer with a liking for prostitutes and cheap wine.

russian revolution

An artistic representation of urban protests in Russia in January 1905.

War was the catalyst for revolution in Russia – not once but twice. In 1905 a clumsily-fought war with Japan humiliated the tsar and his government and placed additional strains on the nation’s industrial workers. When protesting workers were gunned down by soldiers in St Petersburg on ‘Bloody Sunday’, Russia was plunged into months of unrest, violence and political activism. Hiding in the safety of his palaces, Nicholas agreed to reform with the greatest reluctance. He made October 1905 promises of political modernisation, civil rights and an elected assembly but they had evaporated by the following April. By late 1906 Russia had returned almost to its previous autocratic state. The empire’s revolutionaries learned what they had long suspected: that change would not come from above. In 1914 Nicholas stumbled into another war, though one with much greater impact and significance. Russia suffered more in World War I than any other European nation. While under-equipped and poorly led soldiers died in their millions, Russia’s civilian population suffered from shortages of food and fuel, especially in the major cities. By late 1916, the country was tumbling into collapse and anarchy. Rasputin was murdered in December, a last gasp attempt to protect the monarchy. In Petrograd, food queues began to morph into protests and riots. In February 1917 the tsar ordered soldiers to use guns to disband a dangerous protest; instead, the soldiers turned the guns on their officers. The tsar, who had for weeks ignored pleas to make concessions to ease pressure in the cities, was forced to abdicate. With a single stroke of the pen, more than 300 years of Romanov rule came to an end.

A poster depicting famine in the Volga region, 1921.

“Everything established, settled, everything to do with home and order and the common ground, has crumbled into dust and been swept away in the general upheaval and reorganization of the whole of society. The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the bare, shivering human soul, stripped to the last shred, the naked force of the human psyche which nothing has changed – because it was always cold and shivering and reaching out to its nearest neighbor, as cold and lonely as itself.
Boris Pasternak, author

The remainder of 1917 was taken up with a struggle to finalise control of Russia. Nominal power passed to the Provisional Government, a cabinet of moderates drawn from the State Duma. But they refused to withdraw from the war, nor could they address the lingering food crisis. Enter Lenin and his Marxist revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks. Lenin was a brilliant political theorist with an obsessive, impatient and ruthless personality; these qualities made him an ideal revolutionary, though he was no politician or statesman. As the Provisional Government floundered, Lenin built up Bolshevik support and waited for the tipping point where he could seize control of power. That moment came in October 1917 when the Bolshevik militia seized control of Petrograd, almost without opposition. The Bolsheviks ruled Russia for the next six decades, attempting to create the type of classless society that existed only in books. The Russian people, caught between socialist dreams and economic realities, suffered in their millions. It is little wonder that Orlando Figes, a contemporary historian of the Russian Revolution, titled one of his books A People’s Tragedy.

The Russian Revolution is a multiplicity of things, depending on what you read or who you listen to. To those who led it, the revolution was the inevitable rise of the long-exploited working classes. To most of the people who lived through it, the revolution was a short period of great hope followed by a generation of darkness, misery and tyranny. To conservatives, the revolution was an illegitimate coup that implemented an unworkable political and economic system. To socialists abroad, the revolution marked a brief moment of promise and equality that was snuffed out by deceit, thievery and opposition. Few historical events have aroused so much discussion or division. This Alpha History section provides you with an overview of the Russian Revolution and its key people, events and ideas, so that you can draw your own conclusions.

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