The Russian Revolutions of 1917: Early Rebellion

Prince Lvov
Prince Lvov. Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Russian Revolution’ of 1917 was one of the biggest events in world history. Within a few decades, a third of the population of the world was in states derived from it, and it affected the outcome of World War II, and the Cold War which followed. But some things about this titanic change are lesser-known. The Revolution of 1917 is the best thought of not as a single event but as a chain of revolutions, some disparate from one another. This was not a Bolshevik-imposed, inevitable revolution; instead, it was primarily a liberal and socialist revolution. There were many options and many routes, all fed by local interests pulling this way and that. The Russian Revolutions also have moments of high farce and terrible tragedy. The reasons for the revolution go back into the mid-nineteenth century.

Famine and Organization

In 1871, a famine began in Russia. An area larger than a west European country faced starvation as it did not rain and the harvest was obliterated. People fled, people died, disease followed and over half a million people had gone to their graves by the end of 1872. It was a disaster. The government, unfortunately, was too slow in paperwork, too slow in transport, and too slow in understanding to remedy the situation and a chasm of hate opened up between the starving peasants believing the government was too obsessed with money, statistics, money, dissidents, and money to help. Why money? A ban on cereal exports, designed to keep grain in the country for the people, took a month to organize, by which time sellers had sent vast amounts to more profitable locales (i.e. not Russia.) The government had forbidden newspapers from talking of a famine, allowing only discussions of a "bad harvest."

The government then gave in and decided to call on the middle and upper class to help, looking for them to form public relief groups to send aid. The zemstvos led the way, organizing food, hospitals, and canteens and supplying money. But as they organized to help starvation, they created a new network that could and would get political. Zemstvo members were driven by a guilt at being better off than the peasants they didn’t understand. They found a leader in legendary writer Tolstoy, who rounded on the government for its failures.

The result was a society set against the government, with new networks of political support opposed to it. As the demands of famine decreased, society did not return to the past. Everyone frustrated at the government wanted a say in it— a voice in reforming and rebuilding. Debates began: how to reform and stop more famine.

New Ways of Opposing the Tsar

Socialism benefitted greatly with various strands of thought, including the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) newly created under Chernov. Marx was seen as having the explanations and the answer, a scientific reaction to years of quasi-medieval trouble. Lenin even converted to it. Russian society had been changed, the public consciousness of Russia had been developed, an opposition to the tsar was formed. Now it was awake. Education, journalism, discussion groups, all increased as the public found a political voice from a new age, not the medieval Tsar.

Zemstvo’s led this development. Landed, forward thinking, willing to act, they were also monarchists who wanted the government to bend their way a little, not overthrow it but oppose it. But the government geared the Zemstvos and tried to limit and reduce them, setting up conflict. Calls for a national assembly came. The zemstvos wanted agrarian rights defended and were pushing into opposition to and by the government. Students had always been a core of revolution and were at the front of opposing the Tsar, and mass student marches were met with force. Socialist groups swelled in numbers.

The War with Japan

Then Russia became involved in a war with Japan. Russia had been expanding west as railways were built, into the realm of an expansionist Japan. The Tsar, taking a personal interest, rejected compromise and decided to win a war with Japan to take a chunk of Asia. The Japanese attacked in 1904 and Russia thought the result was pre-ordained in their favor. They were racist and imperial. Liberal society flocked to support Russia defending Europe from the “yellow men.” The zemstvos, under Prince Lvov, surged to help and managed to form a medical brigade and get the Tsar’s blessings. But the military was poorly reequipped, on a 6000 mile supply line and commanded by idiots. The war went terribly. Liberal anger came back. Socialist opposition waged a war of almost popular, normalized terrorist attacks. People cheered the murder of government ministers. Liberals wanted a national zemstvo assembly.

A liberal took the place of a murdered authoritarian at the heart of the government and hopes were raised the man could persuade the Tsar to make moderate reforms. The tsar refused anything. Anger grew. Pressed on this matter, the new man allowed the zemstvos to meet and draw up requests. Lvov became chairman of this large-scale zemstvo, and people celebrated the start of a representative assembly. Across liberal Russia, demands for a national assembly flowed. The Tsar looked at the requests presented to him from the meeting and rejected everything about an assembly. There were many half measures, but the core was gone. Then, a revolution began.