Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
The Russian Revolution of 1917
- Name of Event: Russian Revolution
- Date of Event: 8-16 March 1917 (February Revolution) and 7-8 November (October Revolution)
- Location of Event: Russian Empire (Former)
- Active Participants: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Russian society at large.
- Overall Outcome: Forced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II; Complete collapse of the Russian Imperial Government (February Revolution); Collapse of Provisional Government; Creation of the Russian SFSR; Russia is divided into two competing factions and leads to the development of civil war (October Revolution).
The Russian Revolution refers to a pair of revolutions that rocked the Russian landscape in February and October of 1917. The pair of revolutions had tremendous effects on Russian society and resulted in a complete dismantling of the Tsarist autocracy that had ruled Russia for several centuries. In place of the Russian Empire arose the beginnings of the Soviet Union; a socialist regime that ruled Russian and Eastern Europe with an iron fist for several decades before its eventual collapse in 1991.
The Russian Revolution is a crucial event to understand in European and World History at large, due to the tremendous ramifications that the regime change (from Tsarist authority to Soviet rule) had upon global affairs, human suffering, and world politics.
Causes of the Russian Revolution
Working Class Conditions and Peasant Resistance
Historians continue to debate the causes of the Russian Revolution, as the event was the result of numerous factors (some more important than others). However, one of the key causes of the Russian Revolution can be traced to the condition of both peasants and the working class in Russia before the breakout of revolution in 1917. Overcrowding in the cities, poor sanitation, deplorable work hours, and poor conditions across the countryside all led to the development of hostile feelings across much of Russia’s interior. These facts were exacerbated by the disconnect that was promulgated by the wealthy and aristocratic classes that lived in luxury; ignorant (and unsympathetic) of the misfortunes that had befallen much of Russia during this time period. Corruption and the growth of an inefficient bureaucracy only fueled the fires of dissent as ordinary Russian citizens felt completely out of touch with their sovereign and political leaders.
Incompetence of Tsar Nicholas II
Another major cause of the Russian Revolution, according to historians, is the incompetence of Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. As liberal reforms spread across much of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Nicholas II proved incapable of responding to these newfound demands (i.e. constitutional reforms, elected officials, etc.) due to his fear of losing power. Even when Nicholas II finally agreed to the establishment of a Russian Parliament (The Duma) and a Russian Constitution in 1906, he found himself incapable of following any decisions by the Parliament that contradicted his own autocratic will. Thus, while many Russian citizens longed for democratic ideals, Nicholas II made it clear from the start that no long-term revisions to his traditional government would be long-standing or accepted. This, in turn, set the stage for later revolutionaries who found ample support amongst the population for Nicholas II’s removal from office.
Historians also trace the Revolution’s causes to the massacre that occurred on 22 January 1905; an event later known as “Bloody Sunday.” During an unarmed and peaceful demonstration, a group of protesters, led by Father Georgy Gapon, marched in unison towards the Winter Palace of Nicholas II to deliver a petition to the Tsar; asking for greater rights and wages for workers. Before reaching the palace, however, soldiers from the Imperial Guard opened fire on the protesters, killing over 1,000 individuals in the massacre. Although the event is directly correlated with the start of the 1905 Revolution in Russia, many historians argue that the event’s repercussions continued to instill a sense of bitterness and anger toward the Tsar well afterwards as well; culminating in renewed hostilities against the Tsar and Russian government in the months of 1917.
The First World War and the Russian Economy
Historians also trace the event’s causes to the effects of World War One on the Russian economy. Although Russian maintained one of the largest armies in Europe in 1914, it was also extremely unprepared for war. Lack of supplies, food, and weapons proved catastrophic against German and Austrian forces in the West; leading to tremendous losses for the Russian Army. The Great War also helped to spark economic woes for the Russian Empire as well; particularly when it became evident that the war could not be won in a matter of months. The government, in turn, was forced to print millions of rubles, creating widespread inflation and food shortages as the war dragged on. Tremendous losses combined with food shortages all helped to create an environment ripe for revolution by 1917.
Following widespread discontent and disaffection with the Tsarist regime, major protests erupted in Petrograd (February 1917). Within only a few days, more than 200,000 individuals (composed of both men and women) took to the streets demanding the removal and/or abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and his family from power. Nicholas responded by ordering nearly 180,000 troops to the capital in an attempt to quell the uprising before it got out of control. However, many of these troops sympathized with the crowd and refused to obey the Tsar’s command; after only a few days, many of these troops defected to the protestor’s cause, and helped bring control of Petrograd to the revolutionaries. On 2 March 1917, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate from the throne; an event that marked the first removal of Tsarist authority since the time of Ivan III in the fifteenth century.
In the days and months that followed the removal of Nicholas II from office, the Duma appointed a “Provisional Government” to lead the Russian nation. However, the situation for control quickly turned into a power struggle as workers from the city also developed the “Petrograd Soviet” to lead as well. The situation quickly devolved into chaos as both forms of government vied for political power.
The second phase of the Russian Revolution began in October of 1917. Lead by Vladimir Lenin, leftist revolutionaries launched a coup against the Provisional Government on 24 October 1917. Within days, Lenin and his followers managed to take control of government offices, buildings, as well as telecommunication points across Petrograd; forcing the Provisional Government leaders to either flee the country or organize resistance to the new Bolshevik regime. Upon taking control, Lenin issued directives that called for an end to hostilities with German (thus, ending the First World War for Russia), as well as measures that nationalized industry and redistributed land across the Russian interior from the wealthy to the poor. Shortly after, the Soviet state was created; offering a definitive break with the Tsarist past. Less than a year later, the Bolsheviks executed former Tsar Nicholas II along with his wife and children.
"The Russian people are suffering from economic fatigue and from disillusionment with the Allies! The world thinks the Russian Revolution is at an end. Do not be mistaken. The Russian Revolution is just beginning."
— Alexander Kerensky
Aftermath of the Russian Revolution
In the months and years that followed the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union was gripped by Civil War between the Reds (Soviet) and Whites (Nationalists and Monarchists). The Civil War proved exceedingly costly for the newfound Soviet state, as historians estimate that nearly seven to twelve million individuals were either killed or wounded during the bloody event. The seizure of power by the Soviets, along with their ensuing battle with the Whites also created conditions for famine in the early 1920s, resulting in several million more deaths across the vast Russian countryside, as foodstuffs and supplies became difficult to procure (due to conflict and the vast grain requisitions issued by Soviet decrees).
Although the Whites were eventually defeated by the Reds, the outcome for Russia and Eastern Europe (in later years) was far from satisfactory. Although the autocratic system of Tsarist authority had been removed by revolutionaries, a far more sinister and repressive regime had replaced the old form of government; a regime that would endure for several more decades until its eventual collapse in 1991. Thus, it remains unclear whether the Russian Revolution was a success for the Russian people as a whole, given the immense suffering they were forced to endure in the years and decades that followed (particularly under Joseph Stalin). Their victory, in the end, proved to be one of tragedy and defeat.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Wikipedia contributors, "Russian Revolution," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Russian_Revolution&oldid=875633529(accessed January 3, 2019).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Larry Slawson
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on January 09, 2019:
@Liz Yes, indeed! I'm glad you enjoyed. I feel like there was so much information that I had to gloss over in this article, especially since the revolution was an extremely complicated event. But its definitely an interesting event.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 09, 2019:
This was an iconic event of the 20th Century, which has had global repercussions ever since. You give a good overview of the revolution.