HS-102 Readings

The Russian Revolution






    Russia was slowly industrializing during the last half of the 19th century and this process continued into the 20th century.

    A small middle class and a small working class was growing in Russian cities, primarily in association with the railroad industry and financed, in large part, by western capital.

    As is usually the case in the early stages of industrialization, working conditions were horrendous and the working class terribly exploited.

    The largest part of the population, the peasantry, was also terribly opressed in spite of  some improvements since the abolition of serfdom.

    An impatient intelligentsia, motivated by the western European example, desired rapid change while the Czarist government, following in the centuries-old pattern of authoritarian centralized power, set itself firmly in opposition to political change while encouraging the process of industrialization.

    This was an explosive combination which ensured that a political revolution would occur, driven by the irresistable forces of modernization. The only questions were when and under what circumstances it would occur.

    Early indications of the unstable political situation were dramatically displayed in the events known as the Revolution of 1905. In some sense this was the beginning of the Russian Revolution

    When the Cossacks guarding the Winter Palace in Petrograd fired upon thousands of peaceful demonstrators, the shock triggered nationwide strikes which paralyzed the economy.

    Political leaders emerged from underground, where they had taken refuge from the Russian Police, and organized a common front against the government, making demands for the establishment of a Constitution and a legislature.

    These leaders were primarily from middle class and some aristocratic backgrounds, making the moderate demands that usually accompany the opening phase of a revolution.

    The Czar's government reluctantly gave in to those demands because it was the only way that they could regain control. Once the strike was called off, another crisis could not be manufactured at will in order to resume the strike. In other words, the government was then free to subvert the new Constitutional government by controlling the electoral rules and assuring that a rubber-stamp legislature was created. This was done, and Russia missed the chance to develop a stronger, more stable, more representative political system. Russia was left, in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1905, with the same inept, authoritarian government that it had had before.

    World War I created a crisis of such proportions that the monarchy could not meet the challenge. The war precipitated the revolution earlier than it would otherwise have occurred, and under circumstances of great instability and breakdown.

    The usual middle class leadership of the liberal revolution had not had time to mature in its experiences and its institutions. That leadership, therefore, soon lost control of the revolution and was not able to re-assert itself.

    The Czarist monarchy dramatically demonstrated the  weaknesses to which a hereditary system is prone. A male heir to the throne was necessary to assure the continuation of the dynasty. The son of the Czar and Empress, Alexis, was a frail boy who suffered from the crippling hereditary disease of hemophilia.

    The empress, and through her, a good-natured but weak-willed Czar, came under the influence of a religious charlatan, Rasputin, whom they came to believe was the only person who could save their son.

    To be so completely out of touch with reality when Russia was experiencing the devastating crisis of World War I was to assure the collapse of the Romanov dynasty after 300 years of rule.

    The war placed demands upon the Russian economy which could not be met. Industry could not produce the weapons needed by the Russian army. Railroads were inadequate to the task of delivering supplies to the army, and food to people in the cities.

    Mounting lists of casualties eroded away the initial support for the war effort. As the crisis grew, Rasputin gained increasing influence over the Czar's government, hiring and firing ministers at his whim.

    The government became so discredited that even relatives of the royal family participated in the assassination of Rasputin. The government's authority became so discredited that it became vulnerable to total collapse if a challenge arose.

    The challenge came in March, 1917 (February under the Russian calendar) when a spontaneous demonstration arose in the streets of Petrograd. People clamoring for bread poured into the streets for 3 days in succession. On the third day, when the Petrograd army garrison was ordered to put down the demonstration, the soldiers turned on their officers and joined the demonstrators.

    The successful challenge to authority led to efforts by members of the Duma, the Russian legislature, to form a government. A moderate leadership, mainly of middle class background, joined by some aristocrats, formed a Provisional Government which intended to govern until a Constituent Assembly, whose job it was to write a new Constitution,
could be elected.

    Meanwhile, there was an atmosphere of complete freedom in which exiled or imprisoned political activists  were returning to Petrograd and other cities and participating in grass roots political organizing.

    Soviets (councils) were formed, as they had done in 1905. As they made political decisions, they constituted a separate governing body from that of the Duma.

    As word spread about the overthrow, peasants began to rise up and seize the land, while soldiers, most of whom were peasants, began to desert the army in increasing numbers. A revolution on the land, which was beyond the control of city authorities, was occurring. As Lenin said, the Russian people were voting with their feet.

    The Provisional  Government and the Soviets represented different elements of the people, and their decisions sometimes contradicted one another.

    While the leadership of the Provisional Government were trying to carry on the war effort, the Soviets issued General Order #1, authorizing soldiers to question the orders of their officers.

    While the Provisional Government were the moderate leaders attempting to carry out a liberal revolution, the majority of the Soviets were members of the Social Democratic Party, a Marxist party expecting the socialist revolution to follow the liberal revolution.

    The Social Democratic Party had split into two groups in 1903, during a meeting of party leaders in exile in London. At that time, one faction, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, split from the Mensheviks in dispute over the role of the party in the Marxist revolution.

    Lenin's Bolsheviks took the activist position that the Party must act as the vanguard or leadership of the working class, while the Mensheviks believed that the revolution must await the right circumstances in which capitalism would fail because of its inherent contradictions.

    When Lenin returned to Russia in April, 1917, he galvanized the Bolsheviks with a consistent plan of action to which they adhered unswervingly.

    This plan can be summed up in the slogans used by Lenin  in his speeches:"All power to the Soviets", and "Peace, land and bread".

    "All Power to the Soviets" was a call to the Soviets to seize power fromthe Provisional Government, a call which, especially in time of war, and under otherwise more normal circumstances might have been construed as treasonous. But in Russia after the March revolution, there was complete freedom to speak and act; more freedom, in fact, than existed in the United States where Eugene Debs, the American socialist leader, was sent
to prison for ten years for violation of the Sedition Act because of his opposition to the war.

    "Peace, land, and bread", expressed the overwhelming yearning of the Russian people for an end to the Great War, the act of seizing the land then being carried out by the peasantry, and the need for food to be brought to Russian cities.

    The effort by the Provisional Government to continue the war effort steadily eroded the support they had as a succession of political leaders tried their hand. A member of the Social Revolutionary Party, an attorney by the name of Kerensky, managed to hold power for several months while support for the government deteriorated.

    A Russian offensive in July, beaten back decisively by the Germans, provoked an uprising which was put down, a circumstance which temporarily required that Lenin and other Soviet leaders flee into hiding.

    In August, an effort by General Kornilov to lead his army corps on Petrograd and overthrow the Provisional Government led Kerensky to arm all those who opposed this reactionary attack. This included the Bolsheviks, who were able to acquire arms and form a Red Guard. They also achieved greater control over the Soviets.

    The collapse of Kornilov's attempted overthrow thus set the stage for the Bolsheviks to plan and carry out their successful seizure of power in November, 1917.  This was a planned seizure of power, the second phase of the revolution, which forced Kerensky to flee into exile.

    Following the coup, the Bolsheviks consolidated their control over the Soviets, and rival factions began to abandon the Soviets to the Bolsheviks. This left the apparatus of the Soviets, which had been organizing in different towns and cities across Russia, as an instrument to be used by the Bolsheviks to extend their rule.

    Meanwhile, the process set in motion by the Provisional Government had resulted in the election of a Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks were in the minority in the Constituent Assembly. Therefore, the Red Guard prevented the Assembly from meeting. This represented the end of the moderate phase of the revolution.

    The radical phase, which began with the Bolshevik seizure of power, involved a power struggle between the Bolsheviks and several rival groups which took up arms against them.

    Meanwhile the war effort against Germany collapsed and the new Soviet government was forced to accept from the Germans the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which involved extensive loss of territory including Ukraine and a large part of western Russia. This treaty would, however, become null and void after the German defeat in the west.

    Russia then faced three years of devastating civil war as the Bolsheviks, the "Reds" defended themselves against several so-called "white" armies. The war was accompanied by foreign intervention by the English, the French, the Japanese, and the United States.

    In the end, although the Russian economy was disrupted and the Russian people faced a massive famine, the Bolsheviks held power.

    During the civil war, the radical phase, the Bolsheviks formed a secret police and purged any dissenters from their ranks. Lenin held power with ruthless determination, establishing a one-party dictatorship.

    This had little to do with Marxist ideology, although the party leadershipbelieved they were carrying out a Marxist or Communist revolution. While they called themselves revolutionaries, Lenin and his followers set practical limits to the establishment of a socialist society in order to do what had to be done to remain in power and to encourage the economy to recover.

    As a result the Bolshevik Party continued to rule Russia as the Revolution
entered its counter-revolutionary phase.

Soviet Empire