(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Russian Revolutions of 1917

The abdication of Emperor Nicholas II in March 1917, in conjunction with the establishment of a provisional government in Russia based on Western principles of constitutional liberalism, and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in October (O.S.; November, N.S.) are the political focal points of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. The events of that momentous year must also be viewed more broadly, however: as an explosion of social tensions associated with rapid industrialization; as a crisis of political modernization, in terms of the strains placed on traditional institutions by the demands of Westernization and of World War I; and as a social upheaval in the broadest sense, involving a massive, spontaneous expropriation of gentry land by angry peasants, the destruction of traditional social patterns and values, and the struggle for a new, egalitarian society. Looking at the revolutionary process broadly, one must also include the Bolsheviks' fight to keep the world's first "proletarian dictatorship" in power after November, first against the Germans and then in the civil war against dissident socialists, anti-Bolshevik "White Guards", foreign intervention, and anarchist peasant bands.

Finally, one must see the psychological aspects of revolutionary change: elation and hope, fear and discouragement, and ultimately the prolonged agony of bloodshed and privation, both from war and repression and from the famine that killed tens of thousands and, in the end, brought the revolutionary period to a close after the civil war by forcing the Bolsheviks to abandon the radical measures of War Communism in favor of a New Economic Policy (NEP). Throughout, the events in Russia were of worldwide importance. Western nations saw "immutable" values and institutions successfully challenged, communism emerged as a viable social and political system, and Third World peoples saw the power of organized workers' and peasants' movements as a means of "liberating" themselves from "bourgeois" exploitation. As such, the Revolutions of 1917 ushered in the great social, political, and ideological issues that divided the world for most of the 20th century.

Historical Background

Historians differ over whether the Revolutions of 1917 were inevitable, but all agree on the importance of three related causal factors: massive discontent, the revolutionary movement, and World War I, each operating in the context of the ineptitude of a rigid, absolutist state.

The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 left the countryside in deep poverty. The newly freed peasants received inadequate land allotments, particularly in areas of fertile soil, and even these had to be purchased with "redemption payments." Class antagonisms sharpened, particularly since government-promoted industrialization sent impoverished peasants flocking to jobs in urban areas for low wages under oppressive conditions. Government efforts to industrialize also required huge tax revenues, which intensified pressures on workers and peasants alike. Meanwhile, the rising business and professional classes expressed unhappiness with tsarist rule and yearned for a Western-style parliamentary system.

By 1905 discontent among the bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat had spurred Russian intellectuals to create the major political organizations of 1917. Populist groups, organized in the countryside by the 1890s, joined radical socialist workers' groups in the founding of the Socialist Revolutionary party in 1901. The Marxist Social Democratic Labor party was established in 1898. Five years later it divided into two factions: the Mensheviks, who favored a decentralized, mass party; and the Bolsheviks of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who wanted a tightly organized, hierarchical party. Middle-class liberals formed the Constitutional Democratic party (Cadets) in 1905.

Russian losses in the Russo-Japanese War precipitated the Russian Revolution of 1905. The massive urban strikes, rural rioting, and almost total liberal disaffection from the tsarist regime in 1905 have been called a "dress rehearsal" for 1917. Reluctantly, Nicholas II granted a range of civil liberties, established limited parliamentary government through a Duma, abolished peasant redemption payments, and under Pyotr Stolypin began an agrarian reform program to promote the growth of a rural middle class. These measures momentarily quieted the populace, but they also raised new expectations; many concessions were later withdrawn, thus exacerbating tensions. Furthermore, the social stability that some thought the tsar's promises offered required time to develop, and this Russia did not have.

The February/march Revolution

In 1914, Russia was again at war. Land reform was suspended, and new political restrictions were imposed. Disastrous military defeats sapped public morale, and ineffective organization on the home front made the government's incompetence obvious to all. The emperor, assuming command of the army in 1915, became identified with its weakness. The sinister influence of Empress Alexandra's favorite, Grigory Rasputin, increased. By the winter of 1916–17, disaffection again rent all sectors of society—including liberals, peasants, and industrial workers.

When food shortages provoked street demonstrations in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) on Feb. 23 (O.S.; Mar. 8, N.S.), 1917, and garrison soldiers refused to suppress them, Duma leaders demanded that Nicholas transfer power to a parliamentary government. With the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, a special Duma committee on March 2 (O.S.; March 15, N.S.) established a provisional government headed by Prince Georgi Lvov, a liberal. On the same day, the emperor abdicated. He attempted to give the crown to his brother Michael, but Michael refused to accept it. The 300-year-old Romanov dynasty came to an end.

The new provisional government was almost universally welcomed. Civil liberties were proclaimed, new wage agreements and an 8-hour workday were negotiated in Petrograd, discipline was relaxed in the army, and elections were promised for a Constituent Assembly that would organize a permanent democratic order. The existence of two seats of power, however—the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet—not only represented a potential political rivalry but also reflected the different aspirations of different sectors of Russian society.

For most Russians of privilege—members of the bourgeoisie, the gentry, and many professionals—the February/March Revolution meant clearing the decks for victory over Germany and for the establishment of Russia as a leading European liberal democracy. They regarded the provisional government as the sole legitimate authority. For most workers and peasants, however, revolution meant an end to an imperialist war, major economic reforms, and the development of an egalitarian social order. They looked to the Petrograd Soviet and other soviets springing up around the country to represent their interests, and they supported the government only insofar as it met their needs.

Political Polarization

Differing conceptions of the revolution quickly led to a series of crises. Widespread popular opposition to the war caused the Petrograd Soviet on March 27 (O.S.; April 9, N.S.) to repudiate annexationist ambitions and to establish in May a coalition government including several moderate socialists in addition to Aleksandr Kerensky, who had been in the cabinet from the beginning. The participation of such socialists in a government that continued to prosecute the war and that failed to implement basic reforms, however, only served to identify their parties—the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and others—with government failures. On July 3–4 (O.S.; July 16–17, N.S.), following a disastrous military offensive, Petrograd soldiers, instigated by local Bolshevik agitators, demonstrated against the government in what became known as the "July Days."

The demonstrations soon subsided, and on July 7 (O.S.; July 20, N.S.), Kerensky replaced Lvov as premier. Soon, however, the provisional government was threatened by the Right, which had lost confidence in the regime's ability to maintain order. In late August (O.S.; early September, N.S.), Gen. Lavr Kornilov was thwarted in an apparent effort to establish a right-wing military dictatorship. Ominously, his effort was backed by the Cadets, traditionally the party of liberal constitutionalism. The crises faced by the provisional government reflected a growing polarization of Russian politics toward the extreme left and extreme right.

Meanwhile, another revolution was taking place that, in the view of many, was more profound and ultimately more consequential than were the political events in Petrograd. All over Russia, peasants were expropriating land from the gentry. Peasant-soldiers fled the trenches of the ongoing World War I so as not to be left out, and the Kerensky government could not stem the tide. New shortages consequently appeared in urban areas, causing scores of factories to close. Angry workers formed their own factory committees, sequestering plants to keep them running and to gain new material benefits. By the summer of 1917 a social upheaval of vast proportions was sweeping over Russia.

The October/november Revolution

Sensing that the time was ripe, Lenin and the Bolsheviks rapidly mobilized for power. From the moment he returned from exile on Apr. 3 (O.S.; Apr. 16, N.S.), 1917, Lenin pressed for a Bolshevik-led seizure of power by the soviets. He categorically disassociated his party from both the government and the "accommodationist" socialists. "Liberals support the war and the interests of the bourgeoisie!" he insisted, adding that "socialist lackeys" aided the liberals by agreeing to postpone reforms and continue fighting. With appealing slogans such as "Peace, Land, and Bread!" the Bolsheviks identified themselves with Russia's broad social revolution rather than with the idea of political liberty or the political revolution of February/March. Better organized than their rivals, the Bolsheviks worked tirelessly in local election campaigns. In factories they quickly came to dominate major committees; they also secured growing support in local soviets.

A Bolshevik-inspired military uprising was suppressed in July. The next month, however, after Kornilov's attempted coup, Bolshevik popularity soared, and Lenin's supporters secured majorities in both the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, winning 51 percent of the vote in Moscow city-government elections. Reacting to the momentum of events, Lenin, from hiding, ordered preparations for an armed insurrection. Fully aware of what was about to transpire, the provisional regime proved helpless.

On the night of October 24–25 (O.S.; November 6–7, N.S.) the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd in the name of the soviets, meeting little armed resistance. An All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, meeting in Petrograd at the time, ratified the Bolsheviks' actions on October 26 (O.S.; November 8, N.S.). The congress also declared the establishment of a soviet government headed by a Council of People's Commissars chaired by Lenin, with Leon Trotsky in charge of foreign affairs.

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

Few, however, expected Lenin's "proletarian dictatorship" to survive. Bolsheviks now faced the same range of economic, social, and political problems as did the governments they had replaced. In addition, anti-Bolsheviks began almost at once to organize armed resistance. Some placed hope in the Constituent Assembly, elected November 12 (O.S.; November 25, N.S.); others hoped for foreign intervention. Few appreciated Lenin's political boldness, his audacity, and his commitment to shaping a Communist Russia.

These traits soon became apparent. The November Constituent Assembly elections returned an absolute majority for the Socialist Revolutionaries, but Lenin simply dispersed the Assembly when it met in January 1918. He also issued a decree on land in November 1917, sanctifying the peasants' land seizures, proclaiming the Bolsheviks to be a party of poor peasants as well as workers, and broadening his own base of support. He sued the Germans for peace, but under terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) he was forced to surrender huge portions of traditionally Russian territory. Shortly afterward, implementing policies called War Communism, Lenin ordered the requisition of grain from the countryside to feed the cities and pressed a program to nationalize virtually all Russian industry. Centralized planning began, and private trade was strictly forbidden. These measures, together with class-oriented rationing policies, prompted tens of thousands to flee abroad.

Not surprisingly, Lenin's policies provoked anti-Bolshevik resistance, and civil war erupted in 1918. Constituent Assembly delegates fled to western Siberia and formed their own "All-Russian" government, which was soon suppressed by a reactionary "White" dictatorship under Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. Army officers in southern Russia organized a "Volunteer Army" under Generals Kornilov and Anton Denikin and gained support from Britain and France; both in the Volga region and the eastern Ukraine, peasants began to organize against Bolshevik requisitioning and mobilization. Soon anarchist "Greens" were fighting the "Reds" (Bolsheviks) and Whites alike in guerrilla-type warfare. Even in Moscow and Petrograd, leftist Socialist Revolutionaries took up arms against the Bolsheviks, whom they accused of betraying revolutionary ideals.

In response, the Bolsheviks unleashed a Red Terror under the Cheka (political police force) and mobilized a Red Army commanded by Trotsky. They defeated Admiral Kolchak's troops in late 1919; in 1920 they suppressed the armies of Baron Pyotr N. Wrangel and General Denikin in the south. Foreign troops withdrew, and after briefly marching into Poland the Red Army concentrated on subduing peasant uprisings. Some Western historians attribute ultimate Bolshevik victory in this war to White disorganization, halfhearted support from war-weary Allies, Cheka ruthlessness, and the inability of Greens to establish a viable alternative government. Most important, however, was the fact that even while Bolshevik popularity declined, Lenin and his followers were still identified with what the majority of workers and peasants wanted most: radical social change rather than political freedom, which had never been deeply rooted in Russian tradition. In contrast, the Whites represented the old, oppressive order.

Nevertheless, with the counterrevolution defeated, leftist anti-Bolshevik sentiment erupted. The naval garrison at Kronshtadt, long a Bolshevik stronghold, rebelled in March 1921 along with Petrograd workers in favor of "Soviet Communism without the Bolsheviks!" This protest was brutally suppressed. The Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary parties, harassed but not abolished during the civil war, gained support as the conflict ended. The Bolsheviks outlawed these parties, signaling their intention to rule alone. Lenin, however, was astute enough to realize that a strategic retreat was required. At the Tenth Party Congress, in 1921, the New Economic Policy was introduced. This program restored some private property, ended restrictions on private trade, and terminated forced grain requisitions. The foundations had been laid for building Bolshevik socialism, but the revolutionary period proper had come to an end.

William G. Rosenberg


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