1917 was a historic year for Russia. It witnessed two revolutions – the February Revolution and the October Revolution – which brought an end to monarchy, led to the victory of communism and the establishment of the Soviet Union after a bloody civil war. These two revolutions are collectively called the Russian Revolution.
In reading about the Russian Revolution, it is important to keep in mind that until the events of the October Revolution, the Julian Calendar was used in Russia. It was only after 1917 that the Gregorian Calendar – the calendar the world uses today – was adopted. Therefore, the events of the February Revolution actually happened in March while the events of the October Revolution actually happened in November.
This week is the 100th anniversary of the events of the February Revolution, which sparked the Russian Revolution. This is a brief description of the Russian Revolution. The main points have been covered; however, the reader is advised to read further on the topic to grasp a deeper understanding of the topic.
Before 1917, Russia was an Empire. It was a monarchy ruled by the Tsars (essentially, emperors). At the time, the Romanov Dynasty was in power, having held the throne since 1613.
Tsar Nicholas II ruled the vast Russian Empire from 1894 to 1917. He was a deeply unpopular ruler, with his inability to combat the poverty and starvation that plagued the land making him despised by the Russian people. At the same time, he used brutal means to repress any anti-monarchical sentiment.
This sentiment was best described the communists. Communism and socialism were gaining popularity across Europe and the colonised world throughout the 19th century. In Russia, this was personified by the Bolsheviks, a faction of Russian Marxists.
The First World War
The First World War was a crucial rallying cry for Russian communists. The war prompted an outcry among the Russian masses directed at Tsar Nicholas II. As the economic and human costs of the War escalated and Russia lost large chunks of its territory, the Tsar refused to budge or attempt a compromise.
All of this contributed to rising discontent among the masses, which the Bolsheviks capitalised on to grow in clout and power. In November 1916, the State Duma (Russia’s lower house) issued a warning to Nicholas II on the growing public anger. It stated that, inevitably, a terrible disaster would grip the country unless a constitutional form of government was put in place. In typical fashion, however, Nicholas ignored them.
The February Revolution
By March 1917, most of the workers in Petrograd (capital of the Russian Empire and modern-day St Petersburg) and Moscow were striking and rioting for higher food rations.
On 8 March 1917, thousands of women textile workers demonstrated across the whole city of Petrograd. This was the beginning of the Russian Revolution.
Nicholas II unsuccessfully sought to put down the workers by force and also dissolved the Duma. Many soldiers refused to suppress the insurgents; military insubordination and mutiny spread. The Duma refused to obey, and the Petrograd insurgents took over the capital.
Barely seven days after the women’s march on Petrograd, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and a provisional government took power. The Duma appointed a provisional government composed mainly of moderates.
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The July Days
Following the February Revolution and the establishment of the provisional government, Russia began an unexpected transition into republicanism. The transition would be bloody, brief, and unsuccessful.
The provisional government found itself at odds with the Petrograd Soviet, a representative body of the city’s workers and soldiers. The months after the February Revolution were a period of Dvoyevlastiye or “dual power”. The provisional government found itself increasingly at odds with the Petrograd Soviet.
The provisional government was unstable – it was reorganised four times between the February Revolution and the October Revolution. Additionally, Russia’s participation in the First World War continued. This made the provisional government unpopular with the people. Meanwhile, the Petrograd Soviets commanded the loyalty of the workers and soldiers and rose in popularity with their opposition to the War.
Between 3 July and 7 July (the “July Days”), soldiers and workers engaged in armed demonstrations against the provisional government. The Bolsheviks, who essentially controlled the Petrograd Soviet, initially attempted to prevent the demonstrations and then decided to support them. They intended to hold peaceful demonstrations. However, armed clashes broke out resulting in 40 deaths and the wounding of hundreds.
Top Bolshevik leaders were arrested by the provisional government after the July Days. The leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, went into hiding.
While the provisional government viewed the events of the July Days as the last nail in the coffin for Bolshevism, the reality was very different. Bolshevik membership had surged from 24,000 in February 1917 to 200,000 in September 1917. Underestimating Bolshevik influence would prove costly for the provisional government and all Russian democrats.
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The October Revolution
The October Revolution is also called as “Red October” by historians. It was during this revolution that Russian communists actively seized power, thereby establishing the first socialist state in world history.
The October Revolution was led by the Bolsheviks, who used their influence in the Petrograd Soviet to organise the armed forces. The Bolshevik paramilitary – the Red Guards – began the takeover of government buildings on 24 October 1917. The following day, the Winter Palace (the seat of the provisional government) was captured.
Unlike the February Revolution, the October Revolution was carefully planned. It was led by Lenin and the goal of overthrowing the provisional government was achieved in a short span of time. It was also relatively bloodless.
The October Revolution saw the end of the short-lived provisional government which had replaced the centuries-old Tsarist monarchy. It was a crucial point in Russian history – and, consequently, world history – and shook the global political order.
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The Russian Civil War
The victory of the Bolsheviks alarmed non-communists and foreign powers like the US, Great Britain, Japan, and France. Furthermore, the Russian Revolution was centred in urban parts of the country; the rural parts remained unaffected or oblivious. Ideological rivalries were not settled by the Revolution. All of this spilt over into the Russian Civil War, which began soon after the fall of the provisional government.
Anti-communist and monarchist forces, loosely organised into the “White Army”, went to war against the Bolsheviks’ Red Army. The war would rage from 1917 to 1922. There were an estimated 7,000,000 – 12,000,000 casualties during the war, mostly civilians. The Russian Civil War has been described by some as the greatest national catastrophe that Europe had seen (until the Second World War). It would end in Bolshevik victory and the consolidation of the Soviet Union.
Aftermath of the Russian Revolution: The Soviet Union
The Soviet Union was the world’s first socialist state. Lenin died soon after the end of the Russian Civil War. His successor, Joseph Stalin, would rule with an iron fist. Poor administrative policies and forced labour would lead to the death of millions across the country. Meanwhile, the Red Army and the secret police (the KGB) suppressed all dissent, fed propaganda, and ensured the security of the authoritarian regime.
The Soviet Union was, no doubt, established with many dreams and aspirations. However, it killed the freedom it sought to give the Russian people. Throughout the Stalinist years and the Cold War era, the Soviet Union continued to be the bloodiest repressor of individual liberty, free speech, and press freedom. At the same time, extremely flawed economic policy meant led to unparalleled poverty and starvation.
The fall of the Soviet Union
The ominous state of things would continue until 1989. Towards the end, cracks began to appear in the Soviet machine. Mass protests across eastern Europe toppled communist puppet governments. This was best personified by the fall of the Berlin Wall in December 1989. Finally, on 25 December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as head of the Soviet Union. The remaining twelve constituent republics broke apart and the Soviet Union dissolved. In its place, the Russian Federation emerged as the successor of the Soviet Union.
The Russian Revolution can be said to have succeeded in its short-term goal of dethroning the monarchy and later in establishing a socialist state. However, it utterly failed in its long-term goal of upholding human rights and individual liberty in Russia. Today, the Russian Federation is light years more democratic than the Soviet Union. However, it continues to struggle with human rights abuses and curbs on free speech.