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. In 1914, the country was home to approximately 165 million people representing a diverse range of languages, religions, and cultures. Ruling such a massive state was no easy task, especially as the long-term problems within Russia eroded the Romanov monarchy. In 1917, this decay finally produced a revolution, sweeping the old system away. While the turning point for the revolution is widely accepted as World War I, but the revolution was not an inevitable byproduct of war and there are long-term causes that are equally important to recognize.

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. Standard farming techniques were deeply out of date and there was little hope for real progress thanks to widespread illiteracy and lack of capital.

Desire for Autonomy

Families lived just above the subsistence level, and around 50 percent 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. This way of life contrasted sharply with those of rich landowners, who held 20 percent 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 reasonably well-off peasants and large commercial farms. The result was, by 1917, a mass of disaffected peasants, angry at increased attempts to control them by the people who profited from the land without directly working it. The vast majority of peasants were firmly against developments outside the village and desired autonomy.

Opposition to Community Rule

Although the vast majority of the Russian 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, self-governing communities of peasants, were separate from elites and the middle class. But this was not a joyous, lawful commune; it was a desperate struggling system fuelled by the human weaknesses of rivalry, violence, and theft, and everywhere was run by elder patriarchs.
Within the peasantry, a break was emerging between the elders and the growing population of young, literate peasants in a deeply-ingrained culture of violence. Prime Minister Pyor Stolypin’s land reforms of the years before 1917 attacked the peasant concept of family ownership, a highly-respected custom reinforced by centuries of folk tradition.

Peasant Population Rising

In central Russia, the peasant population was rising and the land was running out, so all eyes were on the elites who were forcing the debt-ridden peasants to sell land for commercial use. Ever more peasants traveled to the cities in search of work. There, they urbanized and adopted a new, more cosmopolitan worldview—one that often looked down on the peasant lifestyle they 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. 

Adapting to Capitalist Landscape

When the free labor of the serfs disappeared, the old elites were forced to adapt to a capitalist, industrialized farming landscape. As a result, the panicked elite class was forced to sell off their land and, in turn, declined. Some, like Prince G. Lvov (the first democratic Prime Minister of Russia) found ways to continue their farm businesses. Lvov became a zemstvo (local community) leader, building roads, hospitals, schools and other community resources. Alexander III feared the zemstvos, calling them overly-liberal. The government agreed and created new laws that attempted to reel them in. Land captains would be sent 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.

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, these tightly packed and expanding urban areas were experiencing problems like poor and cramped housing, unfair wages, and dwindling rights for workers. 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 legislation on behalf of the workers.

Becoming Politically Engaged

These workers swiftly began to grow more politically-engaged and chaffed against government restrictions on their protests. This created 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 politicized socialist workers played a major role, although there were many different factions and beliefs under the umbrella of ‘socialism’.

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 secret police operated to crush dissent, frequently either executing people or sending them to exile in Siberia.

Desperate for Reform

The result was an autocratic regime under which republicans, democrats, revolutionaries, socialists, and others were all increasingly desperate for reform, yet impossibly fragmented. Some wanted violent change, others peaceful, but as opposition to the Tsar was banned, opponents were increasingly driven to more radical 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.

Lacking Will to Govern

The Tsar in 1917 - Nicholas II - has sometimes been accused of lacking the will to govern. Some historians 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 modernizing 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:

  1. The tsar was the owner of all of Russia, a fiefdom with him as lord, and all trickled down from him.
  2. The Tsar ruled what God had given, unrestrained, checked by no earthly power.
  3. 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.

Embracing Western Ideals

Many Russians objected to these tenets, embracing western ideals as an alternative to the tradition of tsarism. Meanwhile, the tsars ignored this growing sea change, reacting Alexander II’s assassination not by reforming but by 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, organized royal power through laws, bureaucracy, and systems of government. Alexander III, the heir of the murdered reformer Alexander II, tried to react, and sent it all back to Tsar centric, personalized ‘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 a 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.

Disinterest in Politics

Nicholas was not interested in politics, was poorly educated in the nature of Russia, and not trusted by his father. He was not a natural ruler of an autocracy. When Alexander III died in 1894, the disinterested and somewhat clueless Nicholas took over. Shortly after, when the stampede of a huge crowd, lured by free food and rumors of low stocks, resulted in mass death, the new Tsar kept partying. This did not win him any support from the citizenry. On top of this, Nicholas was selfish and unwilling to share his political power. Even able men who wished 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 supportable officials. Russia had a vacuum that would not react to a changing, revolutionary world.

Elite Disapproval

The Tsarina, brought 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 hemophiliac 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.

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Wilde, Robert. "Causes of the Russian Revolution." ThoughtCo, Mar. 30, 2021, Wilde, Robert. (2021, March 30). Causes of the Russian Revolution. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Causes of the Russian Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 29, 2021).