The Russian Revolution: Explained

One of the most substantial political events of the 20th century was the Russian Revolution. This revolution turned out to shape not only the entire socio-political landscape of Russia but also influence many other countries around the world.

Overview of Tsarist Russia

Tsarist Russia refers to the period of Russian history from 1801 to 1917 when the country was ruled by the Romanov dynasty of tsars. During this time, Russia experienced significant political, social, and cultural changes, including industrialization, urbanization, the growth of the consumer society, political liberalization, and the rise of a politically active middle class.

Among these changes, there was a growing population of industrial workers and peasants who were impoverished and sinking into poverty. Russia’s practice of feudalism which went on until 1861 was oppressive towards the landless peasants which would go on to influence the events in the Russian Revolution in 1917. Some of the other problems that were going on in Russia pre-revolution were:

  • Russia faced a series of costly wars throughout the 19th century which led to frequent foot shortages. Further adding to the misery a famine in 1871 that lasted a year is known to have killed over 400,000 Russians.
  • Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 caused heavy losses to the empire in terms of money, ships, and soldiers.
  • Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905 – A peaceful protest to submit a petition to improve factory workers’ rights was violently stopped by killing hundreds of unarmed protestants from open fire czar’s troops.
  • Educated Russians understood that the existing monarchical rule and aristocracy was a barrier that kept them from making social and technological progress as compared with North America and Western Europe.

Impact of World War I on Russia

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 had a profound impact on the Russian Revolution of 1917. Russia’s entry into the war in 1914 was seen as a last-ditch effort to save the Romanov dynasty, which was facing increasing scrutiny and unrest at home. However, the war proved to be a disastrous venture for Russia, which struggled to keep pace with the more industrialized and technologically advanced German army. The war effort strained Russia’s resources, exacerbated food and fuel shortages, and demoralized the army and the public.

Some specific events during World War I that contributed to the revolution in 1917 include:

  1. Tsar’s control of the imperial Russian army: The Tsar, Nicholas II, took personal control of the army, which proved disastrous as he lacked the necessary military expertise and relied on outdated tactics.
  2. Rasputin’s influence: The self-proclaimed healer and mystic Grigory Rasputin had significant influence over the imperial family, particularly Nicholas II. His corruption and incompetence in military matters further eroded the Tsar’s legitimacy.
  3. Economic hardship: The war effort and Russia’s subsequent defeats led to widespread food and fuel shortages, which had a demoralizing effect on the army and the public.

By 1917, the combination of these factors had created a perfect storm of discontent that ultimately led to the Russian Revolution.

The February Revolution

On February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style), the Russian Revolution ignited. Initially a collection of unorganized strikers, without formal political backing, the demonstrations began quietly as labor strikes were common in St. Petersburg—then known as Petrograd. Yet, on this occasion, roughly 130,000 workers, including women commemorating International Women’s Day, took to the streets.

By the following day, the strike’s momentum surged, paralyzing virtually every factory in Petrograd. The ranks swelled with students, office staff, and teachers demanding change. The situation rapidly escalated as the Tsar ordered military forces to disperse the crowds, which included many women. This traditional crowd control method backfired when a contingent of 1,000 soldiers, upon confronting the protesters, defected and armed them instead, marking a crucial turning point towards an armed uprising.

Subsequently, the city’s governance unraveled. A provisional committee was formed to restore order, while the Socialist Party established the Petrograd Soviet to represent workers and soldiers. Under mounting pressure, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on March 1 (March 14, New Style). By March 3, a liberal aristocrat, Prince Georgy Yevgenievich Lvov, was heading a new provisional government. However, the recently formed Petrograd Soviet would soon emerge as its rival for power in Russia.

The October Revolution

The Petrograd Soviet, an influential council representing soldiers and workers, increasingly dictated terms to the government, a situation which led to a dynamic known as ‘Dual Power.’ The power struggle that ensued laid the groundwork for the Bolshevik’s eventual rise.

In October 1917, the Bolsheviks executed a coup d’état against the Provisional Government. Leon Trotsky, a key Bolshevik leader, played a crucial role through his position as chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. Trotsky and the Military Revolutionary Committee effectively organized Red Guards and sympathetic soldiers and sailors to take strategic points around the city of Petrograd (modern-day St. Petersburg).

On the night of October 25-26 (Old Style calendar; November 6-7 New Style), Bolshevik-led forces took control without significant resistance, occupying government buildings, communication centers, and key vantage points in the capital. Kerensky fled, and the Provisional Government was arrested. The coup was nearly bloodless, and by the end of the next day, the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, had been captured, effectively placing the Bolsheviks in charge of Russia.

Aftermath and Impact

The Russian Revolution profoundly altered Russia’s political, social, and ideological landscape and became a pivotal point in global discussions. Its impacts were far-reaching, reshaping not only the nation but also influencing international relations and ideological conflicts. Key impacts included:

  1. Establishment of a Bolshevik Government: Following the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government, initiating communist rule in Russia and radically altering its political structure.
  2. Withdrawal from World War I: Russia exited World War I by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
  3. Civil War and Formation of the Soviet Union: A brutal civil war ensued from 1918 to 1920. Subsequent administrative reforms led to the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922.
  4. Precursor to the Cold War: The ideological divide established by the Russian Revolution, pitting communism against capitalism and democracy, set the stage for the Cold War, a prolonged period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and Western powers, primarily the United States.
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