Today marks the centeneary of the famous October or Russian Revolution of 1917 which was one of the most explosive political events of the twentieth century. The violent revolution marked the end of the Romanov dynasty and centuries of Russian Imperial rule. During the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks, led by leftist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, seized power and destroyed the tradition of csarist rule. The Bolsheviks would later become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In many ways, the Russia of the last few centuries is very reminiscent of the Russia of today. No doubt a major power and one that wasn’t beyond dominating its smaller and weaker neighbours but like today could be said to be rather impoverished by Western standards with a vast underclass of what where then peasants with few or any rights overseen by strong rule by the establishment.
In the early 1900s, Russia was one of the most impoverished countries in Europe with an enormous peasantry and a growing minority of poor industrial workers.
Much of Western Europe viewed Russia as an undeveloped, backwards society. The Russian Empire practiced serfdom—a form of feudalism in which landless peasants were forced to serve the land-owning nobility—well into the nineteenth century. In contrast, the practice had disappeared in most of Western Europe by the end of the Middle Ages.
In 1861, the Russian Empire finally abolished serfdom. The emancipation of serfs would influence the events leading up to the Russian Revolution by giving peasants more freedom to organize.
RUSSIAN REVOLUTION OF 1905
Russia industrialised much later than the United Kingdom, Western Europe and the United States. When it finally did at around the turn of the 20th century, it brought with it immense social and political changes.
Between 1890 and 1910, for example, the population of major Russian cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow nearly doubled, resulting in overcrowding and destitute living conditions for a new class of Russian industrial workers.
A population boom at the end of the nineteenth century, a harsh growing season due to Russia’s northern climate, and a series of costly wars from the Crimean War in (1854-1856) onwards meant that food shortages were commonplace across the vast empire.
Large protests by Russian workers against the monarchy led to the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905. Hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed or wounded by the tsar’s troops. The massacre sparked the Russian revolution of 1905, during which angry workers responded with a series of crippling strikes throughout the country.
After the bloodshed of 1905, Tsar Nicholas II promised the formation of a series of representative assemblies, or Dumas, to work toward reform.
Russia entered into World War I in August 1914 in support of the Serbs and their French and British allies. Their involvement in the war would soon prove disastrous for the Russian Empire.
Militarily, imperial Russia was no match for industrialized Germany, and Russian casualties were greater than those sustained by any nation in any previous war. Food and fuel shortages plagued Russia as inflation mounted. The economy was hopelessly disrupted by the costly war effort.
Tsar Nicholas left the Russian capital of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in 1915 to take command of the Russian Army front. (The Russians had renamed the imperial city in 1914, because the name “St. Petersburg” had sounded too German.)
RASPUTIN AND THE TSARINA
In her husband’s absence, Tsarina Alexandra—an unpopular woman of German ancestry—began firing elected officials. During this time, her controversial advisor, Grigori Rasputin, increased his influence over Russian politics and the royal Romanov family.
Russian nobles eager to end Rasputin’s influence murdered him on December 30th, 1916. By then, most Russians had lost faith in the failed leadership of the tsar. Government corruption was rampant, the Russian economy remained backward and Nicholas repeatedly dissolved the Duma, the toothless Russian parliament established after the 1905 revolution, when it opposed his will.
Moderates soon joined Russian radical elements in calling for an overthrow of the hapless tsar.
The February Revolution (known as such because of Russia’s use of the Julian calendar until February 1918) began on March 8, 2017 (February 23 on the Julian calendar).
Demonstrators clamoring for bread took to the streets of Petrograd. Supported by huge crowds of striking industrial workers, the protesters clashed with police but refused to leave the streets.
On March 11th, the troops of the Petrograd army garrison were called out to quell the uprising. In some encounters, the regiments opened fire, killing demonstrators, but the protesters kept to the streets and the troops began to waver.
The Duma formed a provisional government on March 12th. A few days later, Tsar Nicholas abdicated the throne, ending centuries of Russian Romanov rule.
The leaders of the provisional government, including young Russian lawyer Alexander Kerensky, established a liberal program of rights such as freedom of speech, equality before the law, and the right of unions to organize and strike. They opposed violent social revolution.
As minister of war, Kerensky continued the Russian war effort, even though Russian involvement in World War I was enormously unpopular. This further exacerbated Russia’s food supply problems. Unrest continued to grow as peasants looted farms and food riots erupted in the cities.
As Bolshevik leader, Lenin had very clear objectives for what he wanted to achieve and it involved Soviets, or directly elected city councils. First of all, the Bolsheviks had to gain control of the Petrograd Soviet. Then they would seize power in the name of the Soviet. This process would be repeated in other cities. It was due to Lenin’s energy and drive that the Bolsheviks agreed on this course of action.
The first step was to increase Bolshevik support within the Soviets. Lenin developed Bolshevik policies in line with this aim in mind. The slogan
“peace, bread and land“ summarised Bolshevik policies at this time.
Lenin could see that the Russian people wanted an end to the war. The Bolsheviks were offering what they wanted.
Lenin claimed that the Bolsheviks could solve the food shortages – the Provisional Government had made them worse.
This was a shrewd move by Lenin. The Bolsheviks were a party of the cities and the industrial areas and they had very little support among the peasants. However, with the peasants being the vast majority of the population, Lenin could not risk them turning against the Bolsheviks. By offering them land, Lenin ensured that the peasants stayed neutral when the Bolsheviks made their bid for power.
Lenin was actively supported by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had superb skills of organisation and improvisation. He created the Red Guards, a Bolshevik militia formed from armed factory workers, soldiers and sailors. Trotsky took charge of the detailed planning of the actual Bolshevik takeover at the end of October, to make sure that all the vital areas of Petrograd were effectively in Bolshevik hands
On November 6th and 7th, 1917 (or October 24th and 25th on the Julian calendar, which is why the event is often referred to as the October Revolution), leftist revolutionaries led by Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin launched a nearly bloodless coup d’état against the Duma’s provisional government.
The provisional government had been assembled by a group of leaders from Russia’s bourgeois capitalist class. Lenin instead called for a Soviet government that would be ruled directly by councils of soldiers, peasants and workers.
The Bolsheviks and their allies occupied government buildings and other strategic locations in Petrograd, and soon formed a new government with Lenin as its head. Lenin became the dictator of the world’s first communist state.
RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR
Civil War broke out in Russia in late 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution. The warring factions included the Red and White Armies.
The Red Army fought for the Lenin’s Bolshevik government. The White Army represented a large group of loosely allied forces, including monarchists, capitalists and supporters of democratic socialism. The White Russians were supplied and supported by British forces, particularly the Royal Navy which did much to estalish the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia but the Russian Civil War ended in 1923 with Lenin’s Red Army claiming victory and establishing the Soviet Union.
Incidentally, if you’d like to visit some of the sites where Stalin and Lenin spent their time in London as Russian outlaws before becoming two of the most important and powerful figures of all time then why not come on my London Pub Crawl Tour!
In the biggest British commemoration of the October Revolution, the Tate Modern gallery in London is exhibiting some of its 250,000 documents and objects relating to the event from now until February 2018 in what it entitles “Red Star Over Russia. A Revolution in Visual Culture, 1905-1955” The star attractiom is a rare original poster that was put up on the walls of St Petersburg on the 7th November 1917 with text written by Lenin himself.
The historic poster, headlined “To the citizens of Russia” proclaimed that “the provisional government has been deposed”.
It told the public that “state power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies – the Revolutionary Military Committee, which heads the Petrograd proletariat and the garrison” and that “the cause for which the people have fought – namely, the immediate offer of a democratic peace, the abolition of landed proprietorship, workers’ control over production, and the establishment of Soviet power – has been secured”. It concluded with the words ”Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants!”
A second almost equally historic exhibit is the poster which is the first proclamation of large-scale public ownership in world history. The document announced the abolition of all private land ownership and awarded all private landed estates, crown, monastic and church lands (and their livestock, implements and buildings) to local peasant communities. It also warned former private landowners, on pain of punishment, not to damage property prior to it being transferred to local community ownership and use. It also nationalised mineral resources, major waterways and lakes.
The October Revolution is important for many reasons, not least for the events that lead to the creation of the Soviet Union for the next 70 years, the proliferation of revolutionary regimes across much of South America, Africa and parts of Asia. Without the industrialisation that the Soviets brought then it is likely that the defeat of Nazi Germany may not have been so decisive though it is often forgotten that Stalin is thought to have killed more people than Hitler.. The ideology from the revolution largely inspired China which was similarly impoverished and under-developed to industrialise at any cost which hs brought it to the edge of domination today.
If you enjoyed this post then you might like to read my recent movie review of The Death Of Stalin.