The Russian Revolution in Nine Stages

Sunday will mark the 98th anniversary of the Russian February Revolution, as a consequence of which the tsar was overthrown in a flurry of populism, eventually leading to the communist takeover the following October (November in the Gregorian calendar), and the rise of the world’s first socialist state.

This is undisputedly one of the greatest moments of the twentieth century, on which so much history rests. The Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the division of Germany, for example, would never have occurred had the revolution not taken place, and the same goes for the revolutions in nations like China or Cuba. Had communism surfaced at all, it would have done so in drastically different circumstances, without the theoretical and practical guidance provided by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

I won’t lie; I’ve been wanting to write about this event since I began posting entries, and now that the anniversary of the occasion is (almost) upon us I have an excuse; I thought, in commemoration of the event, I’d post a short history of the Russian Revolution in nine, condensed stages.

So here goes…

1. The Final Years of Tsarism

Nikolay Aleksandrovich Romanov

Russia was the last Absolute Monarchy in  Europe, and, stretching from the Baltic to the Chukchi Sea, the leadership of what Marx referred to ‘the chief of European reaction’ was struggling to maintain power over a steadily modernising population, growing ever more dissatisfied with conditions in the Russian Empire. The Romanov family had ruled the country for roughly 300 years, yet Nikolai II’s reign was soon to draw to a close, marking the end of the monarchy altogether. But he wasn’t easily broken; first, he had to endure a great deal of uprisings, protests, and foreign aggression.

In the year of 1904, the Russo-Japanese war broke out. Despite Russian military superiority, the conflict resulted in a Japanese victory, w hich coincided with what later became known as the Failed Revolution of 1905. What occurred didn’t gain nearly the significance of the events in 1917, but could well have done, if circumstances were different. One key difference between the revolt of 1905 and that of the February revolution was that the latter had gained the support of the army, whilst the former had not, which could well have been the primary reason why it didn’t achieve what it planned to.

In any case, Nikolai watched the revolution’s defeat at the hands of the military, and continued his reign. In order to ease the growing tensions, he signed the October Manifesto, promising change, and thus created the Duma, a legislature which would limit the extent of his power. Nonetheless, he was naturally opposed to reform, and has been quoted to say “I cannot squander a legacy that is not mine to squander.” He may well have only signed the Manifesto in order to prevent a second revolution, which he might have realised would be, as it eventually was, successful.

2. War, Women and Industrialisation: the Causes of the February Revolution

February Revolution 1917

In spite of the reforms following the events of 1905, Romanov could not secure his own autocracy. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case if it weren’t for the greatest conflict of the twentieth century: World War One. Personally, I believe that if the army was not subject to such a war, neither the revolutionary movement in February nor the Bolsheviks in October would have gained popularity, or at least not on the massive scale in which this occurred.

Having just endured the war with Japan and the Revolution of 1905, and now (as the leader of a nation bound to France and Britain by the Triple Entente) on the brink of a global conflict, Nikolai waged total war, and many suffered as a consequence (the majority of which were peasants, who comprised 85% of the Russian population).

Simultaneously, the industrialisation which took place throughout the Russian Empire may have served to Romanov’s disadvantage. The expanding industrial proletariat provided a basis for communism, perhaps directing or at least contributing to Russia’s direction beyond the post-Febuary period, since the Bolsheviks found their bastion of support in the industrial proletariat. Railways were constructed, too, which contributed to the revolutionary cause in an entirely different and unforeseeable way, as the railway and transport lines were seized on the night of the October Revolution.

On February 23rd (Julian calendar), many partook in a demonstration in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), the then-capital of Russia, for International Women’s Day and in protest against bread shortages, an event which was followed by strikes and other protests in the city. Realising that what was unfolding in front of them had the potential of overthrowing the Russian monarchy altogether, the Mensheviks (the moderate wing of the defunct Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party, after the party split into the Bolshevik (‘majority’) and Menshevik (‘minority’) factions), established the Petrograd Soviet. Soviets (elected councils) existed throughout the Russian Empire, but this one’s role was significant; it existed with the intent of directing revolution.

Meanwhile, Nikolai was visiting troops on the frontline, and once hearing of the events in Petrograd, ordered his own soldiers to fire upon the crowds of protesters. The real trouble occurred at that moment, as many of the soldiers sympathised more with the crowds than with the tsar, and so joined in, often firing directly at police officers. As he no longer had the support of the army, Nikolai could not quash the revolt, and so abdicated, ending the three-hundred year Romanov dynasty of Russia.

3. From Populism to Socialism: the Rise of the Bolsheviks

Hammer and Sickle on Flag

Much happened in the period after the February Revolution that would change Russia forever. The Provisional Government, a temporary parliamentary body comprising many members of the tsar’s former parliament, assumed leadership, but overall power was shared between two movements; after the revolt, Russia entered a period known as Dual power, referring to an effective coalition between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet. The popular demands were, to some degree, met, yet Dual Power existed only for eight months (before a second revolution was carried out). Nonetheless, the period in which Russia was in such a state marked some of the most dramatic changes seen in the nation’s history.

As the New Year progressed, whatever liberal intentions the Provisional Government had were being increasingly balanced by their autocratic and conservative policies. Whilst they declared an amnesty for all political prisoners charged prior to the revolution, they refused both Poland’s and Finland’s appeal for independence. Whilst they addressed the ‘people of the whole world’, stating their demand for peace and calling for an end to the war, they made no efforts to stop the war effort. In fact it was partly the issue of war which worked to determine the government’s fate, which can be seen most clearly when it became known that Russia was promised the straits at the Black Sea’s mouth were she to be militarily victorious, sparking mass street protests.

Throughout February, Russia’s future leader watched from a distance. Vladimir Illych Ulyanov, or Lenin, was exiled in Switzerland due to revolutionary activities. There, he would write the April Theses, denouncing an alliance with the Provisional Government and insisting upon a second, socialist revolt, a demand which was to change the face of the revolutionary movement entirely. He returned shortly thereafter, smuggled onto a train to Russia, and from that moment on, he was able to influence Russian politics directly. Another side to the revolution – the radical left -, was about to emerge.

Upon his return, the Bolsheviks (the party of which he was the leader) grew massively in numbers. Many workers joined the Bolsheviks without knowledge of the party’s political stance, yet realising the support they would provide for the working people. If it weren’t for the sudden growth in membership across the year, it could be argued that the party would not have the national recognition to successfully take control of the country later that year. Yet as the significance of the Bolsheviks grew, distinguishing the party from the other faces in the revolutionary crowd, the popularity of the Provisional Government declined, which becomes clear in examples like the July Days, when anti-war protesters were fired upon by soldiers under the government’s leadership. What fuelled the protest was the fact that the new Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky had just conducted a failed offensive resulting in the death of roughly twenty thousand Russians.

Meanwhile, the other revolutionary parties were divided by the issue of whether to continue fighting Germany, which also worked in Lenin’s favour. The Socialist Revolutionaries, for example, split into Right and Left factions; the Right SR’s, as they became known, supported the war effort whilst the left, who occupied similar ideological ground to the Bolsheviks and would later become their coalition partner, opposed it. Many in the country, after facing years of the misery brought about by external conflict, grew sympathetic towards Lenin’s cause.

Come October, the Bolsheviks were a leading party in Russia capable of staging revolution, and it was evident that the Provisional Government didn’t embrace or act on behalf of the populism which brought down the former regime, providing them with a noble cause. Lenin acknowledged the government’s true colours early on, and whilst in Switzerland, (only two months after they assumed power) he stated that there should be no support or alliance with them. Once again, Russian capitalism was about to suffer an equally catastrophic defeat, this time fatally.

4. One Night in October…

The Patrol of the October Revolution

The Patrol of the October Revolution

Two revolutions make up what we know as the ‘1917 Russian Revolution’, one of which occurred in February, the other, in October. The October Revolution is perhaps the most-famous of the two, partly because of its significance in marking the birth of the world’s first socialist state, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). As it successfully brought down the Provisional Government, this revolution could be seen to be completing the tasks of February. One key difference between the two, however, was the fact that the October revolution was coordinated; what occurred in February was a popular uprising, which, whilst directed and supported by many parties (specifically the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries) it was not sparked or led by any, yet this time, the overthrow of a government took place in the form of an organised coup d’état.

On the night of October 25th, or November 6th in the Julian Calendar, the Bolsheviks, Red Guards (soldiers assisting the Bolshevik cause) and Kronstadt sailors stormed Winter Palace, with a shot fired from the ship Aurora serving as the signal. Whilst protected by the Women’s Battalion, the palace was poorly defended, allowing the seizure of power to occur. On the same night, the Bolsheviks took control of railway lines, along with other crucial locations in the city of Petrograd, effectively seizing the capital’s infrastructure.

Whilst referred to as the Great October Socialist Revolution, it’s worth noting that the October Revolution was significantly less dramatic or symbolic than what one might imagine it to be. It was almost bloodless, was carried out by only a small handful of devoted revolutionaries, and only in the space of twenty-four hours. Come the following morning, however, the new government which was to last up until Gorbachev’s leadership in the early 1990’s, would take its first breath.

5. A Nation Divided

A Stamp Depicting a Soldier in the Red Army, Marking its 20th Anniversary

A Stamp Depicting a Soldier in the Red Army, Marking its 20th Anniversary

Soon after November 6th, the political situation stooped to the level of crisis. Those who were to form the volunteer armies constituting the Russian ‘White Army’ opposed socialism from the start, yet the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, two parties considered to be central in the February revolution and the post-February period, were quickly alienated from Russian socialism, leaving the Bolshevik regime almost subject to collapse. One reason for this was the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, which omitted the moderate socialists from government.

This was a body of elected representatives forming a coalition government, and was created shortly after the October Revolution, when the Russian population participated in what is considered the first ever practice of democracy in the country. It was drafted under Lenin, who had frequently criticised the Provisional Government’s refusal to do so, and thus, when he assumed power, had no choice but to do so himself. The results of the election preceding the Constituent Assembly saw the Bolsheviks receive only a quarter of the vote, despite being the most-popular party among workers and soldiers. The assembly met only once, as it was dissolved by Lenin after the Socialist Revolutionaries (the winners of the election) refused to accept the Bolsheviks’ ideas on issues such as soviet power.

As a result of both this and many other unpopular actions committed by the party, alongside the ideological opposition they faced, they soon grew highly unpopular. War broke out almost instantly, and the White Army formed as a voluntary militarist movement fighting against the Bolsheviks. Consequently, the Red Army (founded and led by former Menshevik Leon Trotsky) significantly grew in numbers to the point where it became the largest organ of the state, consuming a desperately large proportion of funds that almost drained the Russian economy. After several years of fighting, the result was a red victory, but how and why this occurred is a more complex matter.

A contributing factor is organisation: the Red Army was efficient and well-disciplined, fighting for a communist Russia (under Trotsky’s autocratic leadership, discipline even extended to decimation within the ranks in order to eliminate conspiracy). Meanwhile, the White Army fought for ‘Russia: One and Indivisible’, in other words, the existence of a country along the lines of Orthodox Christianity, operating in a similar fashion to the pre-revolutionary empire. They were largely nationalistic and conservative, sharing similar views on most areas, but, as a voluntary army, they lacked direction and failed to organise themselves sufficiently.

On top of this, the Red Army fought for the state, yet existed only as one of multiple state organs. In other words, the Bolsheviks could defeat the Whites through other means. The Cheka (Bolshevik secret police) was one, and the programme it carried out, known as the Red Terror, worked to eliminate dissidence through political terror. Hangings, shootings, and imprisonment were carried out upon the civilian population, in order to fight communism’s enemies before they would rise up against it. In comparison, the White Army carried out the White Terror, yet since their members had to resort to the use of militarism alone, this consisted only of the brutality exemplified by their fighting forces.

Whilst bringing about the near-collapse of the Bolshevik regime, the events of this period actually assisted the state in many ways. Namely, it worked to polarise political views, eliminating the moderate socialists who had become alienated from the radical left after October, for the conflict was very much a battle between Reds and Whites. Those occupying the middle ground were either to choose a side, where that of the Red Army (who, at the very least, would fight to defend the revolution), would seem the logical side to take, or they were reduced to insignificance. This was due to multiple reasons, but strategy played a key role: they were less-inclined to resort to brutality, yet couldn’t fight effectively without doing so. Whatever the reasons, they became ever less of a threat as that of radical counter-revolutionaries grew.

The war finally drew to a close and the Bolsheviks emerged ever stronger and more ruthless than before. They operated bureaucratically, and hierarchy quickly developed within the party, whilst their grip on the populous tightened into strict authoritarian rule. This is likely a consequence of the tragic outcomes brought about by counter-revolution, both during and after the war, and the realisation of the regime’s insecurity due to threats from the outside world. Prior to 1917, for example, it was possible that the party intended for a politically liberal society, yet this changed dramatically after the events following the revolution. When an opponent once challenged Lenin’s policies, advocating the right to freedom of speech, Lenin’s responded by stating that ‘we are not going to commit suicide!’

6. War Communism and the Russian Economy

Victims of the 1921 Famine

Victims of the 1921 Famine

The economic strategy which the Bolsheviks adopted became known as War Communism, which consisted of a strictly centralised economy, in which commerce was illegalised and all means of production were nationalised. It is unknown whether such a format was introduced in the name of reaching true communism, or as a pragmatic solution to the economic crisis Russia was submerged in.

The state’s complete and utter control over all means of production can be seen most clearly in the policy’s effect on the peasantry, which had their grain seized mercilessly in the hope that it would be later repaid. We now know that this wasn’t the case, and in many examples, much of the grain that they relied upon as a food source was used for other purposes with none of it returned.

The result of this was a famine in which millions died, and the necessity for intervention by the west (the American Relief Administration was a significant contributor). The implementation of a policy which even banned the word ‘trade’ also gave rise to a fresh wave of state dissidents, and those who refused to hand over their grain were punished.

Eventually, the catastrophic effects of the policy were too great, even for Lenin, and a seperate policy was introduced, known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). The fact that such a significant change had been made to the country’s economic system highlights the true nature of War Communism, for Lenin wasn’t somebody to give up, especially when the matter concerned socialism. Yet this matter was different: he recognised that if he was to maintain leadership he would need to adapt to the climate.

Despite the need to adjust policies, many believed that the NEP was simply a re-introduction of capitalism into the economy, and rejected the idea that the ideas it proposed should be implemented in a communist Russia. Supporting such an argument is the fact that, under the policy, several small businessmen (the NEP men) were able to profit in a manner akin to those in the free-enterprise economy prior to this one.

The policy itself was fairly relaxed in comparison, and permitted free-enterprise capitalism to operate on a small scale. Whilst the NEP was mocked as the New Exploitation of the Proletariat, and the introduction of which invited criticism of Lenin by more ‘radical’ communists, it served its purpose in kick-starting the Russian economy, since, at this point, production had dropped lower than in the pre-revolutionary period.

7. The Formation of the Soviet Union

Russian Map

Central to the concept of Marxism is the idea of global revolution, and the Bolsheviks recognised this from the start. Thus, their invasions of the neighbouring territories soon followed their rise to power. Ideally, what we recognise as the Soviet Union would only be the starting point, and once communism was established initially it would spread on a worldwide scale, yet of course, a lot can still be learnt by studying what they did manage to achieve.

The Soviet Union, or formally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) consisted initially of Russia and the surrounding states, including modern-day Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus. The fact that Russia had previously established an empire in the region probably assisted their cause in the invasion; if such an empire had never existed, nationalism (which had been surpressed in these nations during the days of Empire) may well have restricted the Red Army significantly.

Nationalism, as a movement, did actually help to compromise the invasion somewhat, for the Bolsheviks were originally opposed to the idea federalism, yet only accumulated the Russian satellite states after drawing borders along those of ethnicities and former nationalities. Nonetheless, the Red Army covered significant ground marching beyond the Russian borders, establishing not only one, but a union of communist states.

It is worth noting that whilst it happened to be these states which fell under communist leadership, communism did not enjoy exclusive popularity among the workers of the eastern world. There was a time when a French communist newspaper, L’Humanite was the most widely-read newspaper in the country, when many in the west admired the USSR and the principles on which they stood, and when communist revolutions in countries such as Germany (which did very nearly occur) were not only anticipated but expected. In fact, after the Bolsheviks took power, the proposal to continue the war effort against Germany, with the hope of establishing a revolutionary German state, received four votes when Lenin’s proposal for peace received seven. If this wasn’t the case, or if the European left had pursued a more militant strategy, the borders of the USSR may have been drastically different.

8. Post-1924 Tensions and the Rise of Stalin

An Informative Poster Explaining Lenin's Death

An Informative Poster Explaining Lenin’s Death

Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, died of a stroke in 1924.

Just before his death, he wrote a testament, which was, as Trotsky said ‘Lenin’s last advice on how to organise the party leadership.’ One particularly perceptive recommendation he made was that Stalin should be removed from his post within the party ‘to prevent a split’ from occurring; something we know is exactly what happened following his death. Prior to this point, differeces of opinion had organised the party into obvious factions and divisions; moderates such as Rykov had feuded with Lenin on issues, and equally Lenin had feuded with the left on others, yet the party always remained unified, perhaps because they always existed under a common leadership.

When that leader died, however, tensions began to surface, becoming evident in the power struggle which followed. It could also be argued that before this point, the Bolsheviks had found themselves in the midst of situations either so dire or so important for any real rivalry to occur. Prior to October, they planned communist revolution and in what manner it would take place. Shortly following their success, Civil War had broken out almost instantaneously, and fighting continued until the years prior to 1924. Naturally, differences of opinion often sparked disagreement and debate, yet the ‘split’ which Lenin had warned of had not yet occurred.

Another factor that may not have been foreseen, except perhaps by Lenin, was Josef Stalin’s steady rise to power. It would seem, in retrospect, that he wanted nothing but authority and strove to achieve it. Stalin established alliances within the party, siding with different members at different times for tactical purposes. He also led the mourning at Lenin’s funeral, and, in an attempt to disgrace Trotsky, his greatest opponent within the party, told him the wrong date for the occasion. First he sided with the left, to weaken moderates like Bukharin, before siding with Bukharin to compromise the ‘Left Opposition’ (Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev). Eventually, after him and Bukharin won the power struggle, he took control of the party and sided with neither faction, expelling those who opposed him, erecting a personality cult around himself, and transforming the party apparatus drastically, as I shall now explain…

9. The Red Tsar


Russia took a sudden turn away from reform under Stalin’s leadership: the NEP was replaced by forced collectivisation, and the liberal and progressive attitudes of the Bolshevik party, which legalised homosexuality, abortion, no-fault divorce, and promoted the emancipation of women, were replaced by far more conservative ones. Reliance upon the use of the Gulag network increased, alongside the degree of censorship employed by the party, and authoritarianism seeped into dictatorship as his power increased steadily.

The ‘Red Tsar’, as he is sometimes referred to, actually demonstrated a sympathy for the reactionary views of the tsars before him, and on the question of brutality, demonstrated a capability and a passion far greater than any of them. Stalin also took actions which could be seen in contradiction to Marxism, such as the practice of ‘Socialism in One Country’, an idea he proposed in opposition to the Marxist concept of world revolution. Unlike the causes of the initial invasions of the first Soviet Republics, he eventually established the communist states of Eastern Europe as more of a buffer zone than anything else. In what was largely an attempt to consolidate power, the majority of old Bolsheviks were also purged under Stalin’s regime, and his old opponent Trotsky, who was exiled and resided in Mexico, was assassinated alongside most of his family.

Stalin’s actions, viewed by the majority of the world with exceptional controversy, gave rise to an ongoing debate as to whether they are the product of Stalinism alone, or the inevitable outcomes of Bolshevism. A viewpoint known as the totalitarian model argues that Stalin’s leadership merely exemplifies what communist rule would have unquestionably come to, and that the atrocities for which he is blamed; the terror, the strict economic centralisation, and the rise of the police state, would have been committed by the government regardless of who won the power struggle. The alternate viewpoint – the revisionist model – argues that Stalin alone is responsible for the chaos he caused, that this period of history, a particularly fluid and unpredictable point in time, could have given rise to a completely different form of leadership. After all, the principles that drove Russia to revolution, also the underlying principles of Bolshevism, were not those of authority, order and obedience but freedom and equality.

Another popular question raised is that of whether or not Stalin betrayed Lenin, who did, we mustn’t forget, recommend that Stalin left the party before his early death. Obviously, profound links can be seen between the Stalinist terror and the Bolshevik Red Terror, which was enacted on Lenin’s orders, or perhaps between Stalin’s policy of collectivisation and that of War Communism, also implemented under Lenin, but again, profound differences can be seen between the two. Lenin was not noticeably power-obsessed, for example, he seeked to end racial antagonisms when Stalin is accused of promoting them (Stalin has been frequently accused of antisemitism), and he upheld liberal and progressive views when Stalin did not. As I’ve said, Stalin was unusual in this respect, as, unlike many other Bolsheviks, his social beliefs orientated him to the right. An unlikely advocate of Russian nationalism, the Georgian revolutionary incorporated patriotic ideas into the communist regime when Lenin would never have done (this being an area in which such betrayal is obvious) though he nonetheless managed to effectively combine political conservatism with economic socialism, very definitely taking Lenin’s contributions on board. As the historian Steve Smith said in ‘The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’, Stalinism ‘synthesized many elements of the Russian national tradition with Leninism, its character as a mobilizing party-state making it very much a creature of the 20th century.’

For further reading on the subject, I would recommend ‘The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ by Steve Smith.

The photograph depicting a hammer and sickle was provided by Ericmetro, from Wikimedia Commons. Here is a link to the photo (first) and its licence (second):

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s