Causes of the Russian Revolution

Lenin Red Square
In October of 1917, the Bolshevik-dominated Soviet government was established, with Lenin (pictured here) as chairman. Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century was a massive empire, stretching from Poland to the Pacific, and home in 1914 to 165 million people of many languages, religions, and cultures. Ruling such a massive state was difficult, and the long-term problems within Russia were eroding the Romanov monarchy. In 1917, this decay finally produced a revolution, which swept the old system away. Several key fault lines can be identified as long-term causes, while the short-term trigger is accepted as being World War 1.

It’s important to remember Tsarist Russia collapsed under its own flaws, with the top rending, not by an attack from people at the bottom (e.g. workers). That (and Lenin) would come later in 1917, when the Tsar was gone. The revolution was also not inevitable: the tsars could have reformed, but the last ones didn’t want to and, instead, went backward. It cost them their lives and it cost Russia many more.

Peasant Poverty

In 1916, a full three-quarters of the Russian population was comprised of peasants who lived and farmed in small villages. In theory, their life had improved in 1861, before which they were serfs who were owned and could be traded by their landowners. 1861 saw the serfs freed and issued with small amounts of land, but in return, they had to pay back a sum to the government, and the result was a mass of small farms deeply in debt. The state of agriculture in central Russia was poor, using techniques deeply out of date and with little hope of improving thanks to widespread illiteracy and no capital to invest.

Families lived just above the subsistence level, and around 50% had a member who had left the village to find other work, often in the towns. As the central Russian population boomed, land became scarce. Their life was in sharp contrast to the rich landowners, who held 20% of the land in large estates and were often members of the Russian upper class.

The western and southern reaches of the massive Russian Empire were slightly different, with a larger number of better-off peasants and large commercial farms. The result was, by 1917, a central mass of disaffected peasants, angry at increased attempts to control them, and at people who profited from the land without directly working it. The common peasant mindset was firmly against developments outside the village, and desired autonomy.

Oddly, although the vast majority of the Russia population was made up of rural peasants and urban ex-peasants, the upper and middle classes knew little of real peasant life. But they were familiar with the myths: of down to earth, angelic, pure communal life. Legally, culturally, socially, the peasants in over half a million settlements were organized by centuries of community rule, the mirs, which were separate from elites and the middle class. But this was not a joyous, lawful commune; it was a desperate struggling system fuelled with the human weaknesses of rivalry, violence, and theft, and everywhere was run by elder patriarchs.

A break was occurring among the peasants between the elders and the large amount of young literate peasants, but there was still a culture of deeply ingrained, frequent violence.

The peasants were not without a world view, and it was a mixture of old folk memory, custom, and opposition to the interference of the tsar. Inside vs outside. Stolypin’s land reforms of the years before 1917 attacked peasant concept of family ownership and tried to capitalise it; revolutionary peasants often went back to communal systems. This wasn’t so much class but a view based on justice of poor vs strong.

In central Russia the peasant population was rising and land was running out, so eyes were on the elites who were forcing the debt ridden peasants to sell land for commercial use. Ever more peasants travelled in search of work: to the cities. There they urbanised and looked negatively on the peasants left behind. Cities were highly overcrowded, unplanned, poorly paid, dangerous and unregulated.

Upset with class, at odds with their bosses and elites, a new urban culture was forming, militant and about to take action. These new workers were unsure of the patronising liberals, preferred the socialists.

When serfs, i.e. free labour, went, the old elites had to adapt to a capitalist, industrialised farming landscape, and they couldn’t. They began to decline, fail and panic. They had to sell off land. Some people, like Prince G. Lvov (the first democratic Prime Minister of Russia) made their farms work, and he became a zemstvo leader, building roads, hospitals, schools and more. Alexander III feared the zemstvos (local committees) as liberal. The government agreed. Laws attempted to grab hold of them. Land captains would be send out to enforce Tsarist rule and counter the liberals. This and other counter reforms ran right into the reformers and set the tone for a struggle that the Tsar would not necessarily win.

A Growing and Politicized Urban Workforce

The industrial revolution came to Russia largely in the 1890s, with ironworks, factories and the associated elements of industrial society. While the development was neither as advanced nor as swift as in a country like Britain, Russia’s cities began to expand and large numbers of peasants moved to the cities to take up new jobs. By the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries millions were in these tightly packed and expanding urban areas, experiencing problems like poor and cramped housing, bad wages, and a lack of rights in their jobs. The government was afraid of the developing urban class, but more afraid of driving foreign investment away by supporting better wages, and there was a consequent lack of reforming legislation.

These workers swiftly began to grow politicised and chaffed against government restrictions on their protests, forming a fertile ground for the socialist revolutionaries who moved between cities and exile in Siberia. In order to try and counter the spread of anti-Tsarist ideology, the government formed legal, but neutered, trade unions to take the place of the banned but powerful equivalents.

In 1905, and 1917, heavily politicised socialist workers played a major role, although there were many different factions and beliefs under the umbrella of ‘socialism’.

Tsarist Autocracy, A Lack of Representation and a Bad Tsar

Russia was ruled by an emperor called the Tsar, and for three centuries this position had been held by the Romanov family. 1913 saw the 300 year celebrations in a vast festival of pomp, pageantry, social class and expense. Few people had an idea the end of Romanov rule was so close, but the festival was designed to enforce a view of the Romanovs as personal rulers. All it fooled were the Romanovs themselves. They ruled alone, with no true representative bodies: even the Duma, an elected body created in 1905, could be completely ignored by the Tsar when he wished to, and he did. Freedom of expression was limited, with censorship of books and newspapers, while a secret police operated to crush dissent, frequently either executing people or sending them to exile in Siberia.

The result was an autocratic regime under which republicans, democrats, revolutionaries, socialists and others both chaffed and were increasingly desperate for reform. Some wanted violent change, others peaceful, but as opposition to the Tsar was banned, opponents were increasingly driven to extreme measures. There was a strong reforming – essentially westernizing – movement in Russia during the mid-nineteenth century under Alexander II, with elites split between reform and entrenchment. A constitution was being written when Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. His son, and his son in turn (Nicholas II), reacted against the reform, not only halting it but starting a counter reform of centralized, autocratic government.

The Tsar in 1917 - Nicholas II - has sometimes been accused of lacking the will to govern. Historians like Figes have concluded that this wasn’t the case; the problem was that Nicholas was determined to govern while lacking any idea or ability to run an autocracy properly. That Nicholas’ answer to the crises facing the Russian regime – and the answer of his father - was to look back to the seventeenth century and try to resurrect an almost late-medieval system, instead of reforming and modernising Russia, was a major problem and source of discontent which directly led to the revolution.

Tsar Nicholas II held to three tenants drawn on earlier Tsars: the tsar was the owner of all of Russia, a fiefdom with him as lord, and all trickled down from him. The Tsar ruled what god had given, unrestrained, checked by no earthly power. Third: the people of Russia loved their Tsar as a tough father. If this was out of step with the west and emerging democracy, it was out of step with Russia itself. Many objected to the tenets. The ideas of the west were moving east, undercutting the tsars, who reacted after Alexander II’s assassination by not reforming but retreating to medieval foundations.

But this was Russia, and there wasn’t even one kind of autocracy. ‘Petrine’ autocracy derived from Peter the Great’s western vision, organised royal power through laws, bureaucracy, and systems of government. From divine tsar to autocratic state. Alexander III, heir of the murdered reformer Alexander II, tried to react, and sent it all back to Tsar centric, personalised ‘Muscovite’ autocracy. Petrine bureaucracy in the nineteenth century had become interested in reforming, connected to the people, and the people wanted a constitution. Alexander IIIs son Nicholas II was also Muscovite and tried to turn things back to the seventeenth century to a greater extent. Even dress code was considered. Added to this was the idea of the good tsar: it was the boyars, the aristocrats, the other landowners who were bad, and it was the tsar who protected you, rather than being an evil dictator. Russia was running out of people who believed it.

Nicholas was not interested in politics, was poorly educated in the nature of Russia, and not trusted by his father. A weak personality was the result. He was not a natural ruler of an autocracy, and would have been great in Britain. He was not in Britain. Alexander III died in 1894, aged 49. Nicholas went, not knowing how to rule, when a huge crowd lured by free food and rumours of low stocks surged, crushing and killing over a thousand people. The new Tsar kept partying: opinion was against him from the start.  Nicholas didn’t trust other people with power, thinking he must keep it all himself. The able men who tried to change the future of Russian, like Stolypin, faced in the Tsar a man who resented them. Nicholas wouldn’t disagree to people’s faces, would take decisions based weakly, and would only see ministers singly so as not to be overwhelmed. Russian government lacked the ability and effectiveness it needed because the tsar wouldn’t delegate, or support able officials. Russia had a vacuum that would not react to a changing, revolutionary world.

The Tsarina, bought up in Britain, disliked by elites and felt to be a stronger person than Nicholas also came to believe in the medieval way to rule: Russia was not like the UK, and she and her husband did not need to be liked. She had a strength to push Nicholas around, but when she gave birth to a haemophiliac son and heir she drifted harder into church and mysticism looking for a cure that she thought she found in the con man mystic Rasputin. Relationships between the Tsarina and Rasputin eroded the support of the army and aristocracy.