Causes of the Russian Revolution

Poster depicting Russian Revolution of 1917
Poster depicting Russian Revolution of 1917.

Photos.com / Getty Images

The Russian Revolution of 1917 stands as one of the most impactful political events of the 20th century. Lasting from March 8, 1917, to June 16, 1923, the violent revolution saw the overthrow of the tradition of czarist rulers by the Bolsheviks, led by leftist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Perhaps more significant to the future of international politics and security, Lenin’s Bolsheviks would go on to form the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Key Takeaways: Causes of the Russian Revolution

  • The Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution of 1917, in overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II, ended over 300 years of autocratic tsarist rule.
  • The Russian Revolution lasted from March 8, 1917, to June 16, 1923.
  • Primary causes of the Revolution included peasant, worker, and military dissatisfaction with corruption and inefficiency within the czarist regime, and government control of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Primary causes of the Russian Revolution included widespread corruption and inefficiency within the czarist imperial government, growing dissatisfaction among peasants, workers, and soldiers, the monarchy’s level of control over the Russian Orthodox Church, and the disintegration of the Imperial Russian Army during World War I.

Changes in the Working Class 

The social causes of the Russian Revolution can be traced to the oppression of both the rural peasant class and the urban industrial working class by the tsarist regime and the costly failures of Tsar Nicholas II in World War I. The rather delayed industrialization of Russia in the early 20th century triggered immense social and political changes that resulted in interrelated dissatisfaction among both the peasants and the workers.

Peasant Dissatisfaction

Under the elementary theory of property, Russian peasants believed that land should belong to those who farmed it. While they had been emancipated from serfdom by Tsar Alexander II in 1861, rural agrarian peasants resented being forced to pay the government back for their minimal allotments of land and continued to press for communal ownership of the land they worked. Despite feeble attempts at land reforms in the early 20th century, Russia continued to consist mainly of poor farming peasants and a glaring inequality of land ownership, with 25% of the nation’s land being privately owned by only 1.5% of the population.

Dissatisfaction was further exacerbated by the growing numbers of rural peasant villagers moving to and from urban areas leading to the disruptive influences of city culture on pastoral village life through the introduction of previously unavailable consumer goods, newspapers, and word of mouth. 

Working Class Dissatisfaction

By the end of the 19th century, Russia’s cities were growing rapidly as hundreds of thousands of people moved to urban areas to escape poverty. Between 1890 and 1910, for example, then Russia’s capital, Saint Petersburg, grew from 1,033,600 to 1,905,600, with Moscow experiencing similar growth. The resulting “proletariat”—an expanded working class possessing economically valuable skills—became more likely to go on strike and to publicly protest than the dwindling peasant class had been in the past.

Instead of the wealth realized by workers in Western Europe and the United States, the Industrial Revolution in Russia left workers facing unsafe working conditions, low wages, and few worker’s rights. The once well-off Russian working class was suddenly confronted with overcrowded housing often with deplorable sanitary conditions, and long work hours. Even on the eve of World War I, workers were putting in 10 to 12-hour workdays six days a week. The constant risk of injury and death from unsafe and unsanitary working conditions along with harsh physical discipline and inadequate wages added to the proletariat’s growing discontent.

Lenin addressing a crowd in Moscow
Lenin addressing crowd in Moscow, 1917. Getty Images

Despite these hardships, many workers were encouraged to expect more from life. The self-respect and confidence gained from their newly acquired essential skills served to heighten workers’ expectations and desires. Now living in cities, workers came to desire consumer products they had never seen in villages. More importantly to the looming revolution, workers living in cities were more likely to be swayed by new—often rebellious—ideas about political and social order.

No longer considering Tsar Nicholas II to be the protector of the working class, strikes and public disorder from this new proletariat increased rapidly in number and violence, especially after the “Bloody Sunday” massacre of January 22, 1905, in which hundreds of unarmed protestors were killed by Nicholas’ elite troops.

When Russia entered World War I in 1914, the vast demand for factories to produce war supplies triggered even more labor riots and strikes. Already largely opposed to the war, the Russian people supported the workers. Equally unpopular forced military service stripped cities of skilled workers, who were replaced by unskilled peasants. When the inadequate railway system combined with the diversion of resources, production, and transport to war needs caused widespread famine, droves of remaining workers fled the cities seeking food. Suffering from a lack of equipment and supplies, the Russian soldiers themselves finally turned against the Tsar. As the war progressed, many of the military officers who remained loyal to the Tsar were killed and replaced by discontented draftees with little loyalty to the Tsar.

Unpopular Government

Even before World War I, many sections of Russia had become dissatisfied with the autocratic Russian government under Czar Nicholas II, who had once declared, “One Czar, One Church, One Russia.” Like his father, Alexander III, Nicholas II applied an unpopular policy of “Russification,” a process that required non-ethnic Russian communities, such as Belarus and Finland, to give up their native culture and language in favor of Russian culture.

An extremely conservative ruler, Nicholas II maintained strict authoritarian control. Individual citizens were expected to show unquestioned devotion to their community, acquiescence to the mandated Russian social structure, and a sense of duty to the country. 

Blinded by his visions of the Romanov monarchy that has ruled Russia since 1613, Nicholas II remained unaware of the declining state of his country. Believing his power had been granted by Divine Right, Nicholas assumed that the people would show him unquestioning loyalty. This belief made him unwilling to allow social and political reforms that could have relieved the suffering of the Russian people resulting from his incompetent management of the war effort. 

Even after the events of the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 had spurred Nicholas II to grant the people minimal civil rights, he proceeded to limit these liberties in order to maintain the ultimate authority of the Tsarist Monarchy. In the face of such oppression, the Russian people continued to press Nicholas II to allow democratic participation in government decisions. Russian liberals, populists, Marxists, and anarchists supported social and democratic reform.

The Staff of The October Revolution: Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin
The Staff of The October Revolution: Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

The people’s dissatisfaction with the autocratic Russian government peaked after the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1905. The resulting crippling worker strikes forced Nicholas II to choose between either establishing a military dictatorship or allowing the creation of a limited constitutional government. Though both he and his advising minister had reservations about granting a constitution, they decided it would tactically be the better choice. Thus on October 17, 1905, Nicholas issued the October Manifesto promising to guarantee civil liberties and establishing Russia’s first parliament—the Duma. Members of the Duma were to be popularly elected and their approval would be required before the enactment of any legislation. In 1907, however, Nicholas disbanded the first two Dumas when they failed to endorse his autocratic policies. With the loss of the Dumas, quashed hopes for democracy fueled a renewed revolutionary fervor among all classes of the Russian people as violent protests criticized the Monarchy. 

Church and Military

At the time of the Russian Revolution, the Tsar was also the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which played an integral role in the autocratic government. Reinforcing the Tsars’ authority, Official Church doctrine declared that the Tsar had been appointed by God, thus any challenge to—the “Little Father”—was considered an insult to God.

Mostly illiterate at the time, the Russian population relied heavily on what the Church told them. Priests were often financially rewarded for delivering the Tsar’s propaganda. Eventually, the peasants began to lose respect for the priests, seeing them as increasingly corrupt and hypocritical. Overall, the Church and its teachings became less respected during the rule of Nicholas II.

 The level to which the Church was subservient to the Tsarist state remains a topic of debate. However, the Church’s freedom to take independent activity was limited by the edicts of Nicholas II. This extent of state control over religion angered many clergy members and lay believers alike.

Feelings of Russian national unity following the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 briefly quelled the strikes and protests against the Tsar. However, as the war dragged on, these feelings of patriotism faded. Angered by staggering losses during just the first year of the war, Nicholas II took over command of the Russian Army. Personally directing Russia’s main theatre of war, Nicholas placed his largely incapable wife Alexandra in charge of the Imperial government. Reports of corruption and incompetence in the government soon began to spread as the people became increasingly critical of the influence of self-proclaimed “mystic” Grigori Rasputin over Alexandra and the Imperial family. 

Under the command of Nicholas II, Russian Army war losses grew quickly. By November 1916, a total of over five million Russian soldiers had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Mutinies and desertions began to occur. Lacking food, shoes, ammunition, and even weapons, discontent and lowered morale contributed to more crippling military defeats. 

The war also had a devastating effect on the Russian people. By the end of 1915, the economy was failing due to wartime production demands. As inflation reduced income, widespread food shortages and rising prices made it difficult for individuals to sustain themselves. Strikes, protests, and crime increased steadily in the cities. As suffering people scoured the streets for food and firewood, resentment for the wealthy grew.

As the people increasingly blamed Tsar Nicholas for their suffering, the meager support he had left crumbled. In November 1916, the Duma warned Nicholas that Russia would become a failed state unless he allowed a permanent constitutional government to be put in place. Predictably, Nicholas refused and Russia’s Tsarist regime, which had endured since the reign of Ivan the Terrible in 1547, collapsed forever during the Revolution of February 1917. Less than one year later, Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family were executed.

The Provisional Committee of the State Duma, 1917.
The Provisional Committee of the State Duma, 1917.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

Nationalist and Revolutionary Sentiments 

Nationalism as an expression of cultural identity and unity first arose in Russia in the early 19th century and soon became incorporated into pan-Slavism—an anti-Western movement advocating the union of all Slavs or all Slavic peoples of eastern and east-central Europe into a single powerful political organization. Following Nicholas II’s doctrine of “Russification,” Russian Slavophiles opposed allowing the influences of Western Europe to alter Russian culture and traditions.

In 1833, Emperor Nicholas I adopted the decidedly nationalistic motto “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” as the official ideology of Russia. Three components of the triad were:

  • Orthodoxy: Adherence to Orthodox Christianity and protection of the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • Autocracy: Unconditional loyalty to the Imperial House of Romanov in return for paternalist protection of all orders of social hierarchy in Christianity. 
  • Nationality: A sense of belonging to a particular nation and sharing that nation’s common history, culture, and territory.

To a large extent, however, this brand of state-proclaimed Russian nationalism was largely intended to divert public attention from the inner tensions and contradictions of the autocratic Tsarist system after the enactment of Nicholas II’s October Manifesto. 

Expressions of Russian nationalism all but vanished during the nation’s disastrous experience in World War I but reemerged following the Bolshevik’s triumph in the 1917 Revolution and the collapse of the tsarist Russian empire. Nationalist movements first increased among the different nationalities that lived in the ethically diverse country. 

In developing its policy on nationalism, the Bolshevik government largely followed Marxist-Leninist ideology. Lenin and Karl Marx advocated for a worldwide worker revolution that would result in the elimination of all nations as distinct political jurisdictions. They thus considered nationalism to be an undesirable bourgeois capitalist ideology.

However, the Bolshevik leaders considered the inherent revolutionary potential of nationalism to be a key to advancing the revolution envisioned by Lenin and Marx, and so supported the ideas of self-determination and the unique identity of nations. 

On November 21, 1917, just one month after the October Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of the People of Russia promised four key principles:

  • The equality and sovereignty—the principle holding that source of governmental power lies with the people—of all peoples of the Russian empire. 
  • The right of self-determination for all nations.
  • The elimination of all privileges based on nationality or religion.
  • Freedom of cultural preservation and development for Russian ethnic minorities.

The newly formed Communist Soviet government, however, resisted the implementation of these ideals. Of all the different countries which had at least perilously coexisted in the tsarist Russian empire, only Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were granted independence. However, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia lost their independence when they were occupied by the Soviet Army in 1940.

Soviet leaders had hoped the 1917 Revolution would trigger what Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky had called a “Permanent Revolution” spreading socialist ideas from country to country. As history has proven, Trotsky’s vision was not to become reality. By the early 1920s, even the Soviet leaders realized that most developed nations would, by their nationalistic nature, remain autonomous. 

Today, Russian extremist nationalism often refers to far-right and a few far-left ultra-nationalist movements. The earliest example of such movements dates to early 20th century Imperial Russia when the far-right Black Hundred group opposed the more popular Bolshevik revolutionary movement by staunchly supporting the House of Romanov and opposing any departure from the autocracy of the reigning tsarist monarchy. 

Sources

  • McMeekin, Sean. “The Russian Revolution: A New History.” Basic Books, March 16, 2021, ISBN-10: 1541675487.
  • Trotsky, Leon. “History of the Russian Revolution.” Haymarket Books, July 1, 2008, ISBN-10: 1931859450.
  • Baron, Samuel H. “Bloody Saturday in the Soviet Union.” Stanford University Press, May 22, 2001, ISBN-10:‎ 0804752311.
  • Gatrell, Peter. “Russia's First World War: A Social and Economic History.” Routledge, April 7, 2005, ISBN-10: 9780582328181.
  • Tuminez, Astrid. “Russian Nationalism and Vladimir Putin's Russia.” American International Group, Inc.. April 2000, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/pm_0151.pdf.
  • Kolstø, Pal and Blakkisrud, Helge. “The New Russian Nationalism.” Edinburgh University Press, March 3, 2016, ISBN 9781474410434.
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Longley, Robert. "Causes of the Russian Revolution." ThoughtCo, Feb. 25, 2022, thoughtco.com/causes-of-the-russian-revolution-1221800. Longley, Robert. (2022, February 25). Causes of the Russian Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/causes-of-the-russian-revolution-1221800 Longley, Robert. "Causes of the Russian Revolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/causes-of-the-russian-revolution-1221800 (accessed December 4, 2022).