The Russian Revolution of 1917

Striking Putilov workers on the first day of the February Revolution, St Petersburg, Russia, 1917. Artist: Anon
Striking Putilov workers on the first day of the February Revolution, St Petersburg, Russia, 1917. The Putilov Plant was a large machine-building factory in St Petersburg. In 1917 it was the largest employer in the city. Heritage Images/Getty Images

Summary

In 1917 Russia was convulsed by two major seizures of power. The Tsars of Russia were replaced first in February by a pair of co-existing revolutionary governments, one mainly liberal, one socialist, but after a period of confusion a fringe socialist group lead by Lenin seized power in October and produced the world’s first socialist state. The February Revolution was the start of a genuine social revolution in Russia, but as the rival governments were seen to increasingly fail, a power vacuum allowed Lenin and his Bolsheviks to stage their coup and seize power under the cloak of this revolution.

Decades of Dissent

Tensions between the autocratic Tsars of Russia and their subjects over a lack of representation, a lack of rights, disagreements over laws and new ideologies, had developed across the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth. The increasingly democratic west of Europe provided a strong contrast to Russia, which was increasingly viewed as backward. Strong socialist and liberal challenges had emerged to the government, and an abortive revolution in 1905 had produced a limited form of parliament called the Duma.

But the Tsar had disbanded the Duma when he saw fit, and his ineffective and corrupt government had grown massively unpopular, leading to even moderate elements in Russia seeking to challenge their long-term ruler. Tsars had reacted with brutality and repression to extreme, but minority, forms of rebellion like assassination attempts, which had killed Tsars and Tsarist employees.

At the same time, Russia had developed a growing class of poor urban workers with strong socialist leanings to go with the mass of long term disenfranchised peasants. Indeed, strikes were so problematic that some had wondered aloud in 1914 whether the Tsar could risk mobilizing the army and sending it away from the strikers.

Even the democratically minded had been alienated and started agitating for change, and to educated Russians, the Tsarist regime increasingly appeared like a horrific, incompetent, joke.

The Causes of the Russian Revolution in more depth

World War 1: The Catalyst

The Great War of 1914 to 1918 was to prove the death knell of the Tsarist regime. After initial public fervor, alliance and support collapsed due to military failures. The Tsar took personal command, but all this meant was that he became closely associated with the disasters. The Russian infrastructure proved inadequate for Total War, leading to widespread food shortages, inflation and the collapse of the transport system, exacerbated by the failure of central government to manage anything. Despite this, the Russian army remained largely intact, but without faith in the Tsar. Rasputin, a mystic who exerted a hold over the imperial family, changed the internal government to his whims before he was assassinated, further undermining the Tsar. One politician remarked, “Is this stupidity or treason?”

The Duma, which had voted for its own suspension for the war in 1914, demanded a return in 1915 and the Tsar agreed. The Duma offered to aid the failing Tsarist government by forming a ‘Ministry of National Confidence’, but the Tsar refused.

Then major parties in the Duma, including the Kadets, Octobrists, Nationalists and others, supported by the SRs, formed the ‘Progressive Bloc’ to try and pressure the Tsar into acting. He again refused to listen. This was probably his realistic last chance to save his government.

The February Revolution

By 1917 Russia was now more divided that ever, with a government that clearly couldn’t cope and a war dragging on. Anger at the Tsar and his government led to massive multi-day strikes. As over two hundred thousand people protested in the capital Petrograd, and protests hit other cities, the Tsar ordered military force to break the strike. At first troops fired on protestors in Petrograd, but then they mutinied, joined them and armed them. The crowd then turned on the police. Leaders emerged on the streets, not from the professional revolutionaries, but from people finding sudden inspiration.

Freed prisoners took looting to the next level, and mobs formed; people died, were mugged, were raped.

The largely liberal and elite Duma told the Tsar that only concessions from his government could stop the trouble, and the Tsar responded by dissolving the Duma. This then selected members to form an emergency Provisional Government and, at the same time – February 28th - socialist minded leaders also began to form a rival government in the form of the St, Petersburg Soviet. The early executive of the Soviet was free of actual workers, but full of intellectuals who tried to assume control of the situation. Both the Soviet and the Provisional Government then agreed to work together in a system nicknamed ‘Dual Power / Dual Authority’.

In practice, the Provisionals had little choice but to agree as the soviets were in effective control of key facilities. The aim was to rule until a Constituent Assembly had created a new government structure. Support for the Tsar faded quickly, even though the Provisional Government was unelected and weak. Crucially, it had the support of the army and bureaucracy. The Soviet could have taken total power, but its non-Bolshevik leaders stopped, partly because they believed a capitalist, bourgeois government was needed before the socialist revolution was possible, partly because they feared a civil war, and partly because they doubted they could really control the mob.

At this stage the Tsar discovered the army would not support him – military leaders, having spoken to the Duma, asked the Tsar to quit – and abdicated on behalf of himself and his son. The new heir, Michael Romanov, refused the throne and three hundred years of Romanov family rule was ended. They would later be executed on mass. The revolution then spread across Russia, with mini Dumas and parallel soviets formed in major cities, the army and elsewhere to take control. There was little opposition. Overall, a couple of thousand people had died during the changeover. At this stage, the revolution had been pushed forward by former Tsarists - high ranking members of the military, Duma aristocrats and others - rather than by Russia’s group of professional revolutionaries.

Troubled Months

As the Provisional Government attempted to negotiate a way through the many different hoops for Russia, the war continued in the background. All but the Bolsheviks and Monarchists initially worked together in a period of shared joy, and decrees were passed reforming aspects of Russia. However, the issues of land and the war were sidestepped, and it was these that would destroy the Provisional Government as its factions grew increasingly drawn to the left and right. In the country, and across Russia, central government collapsed and thousands of localized, ad hoc committees formed to govern. Chief among these were village/peasant bodies, based heavily on the old communes, which organized the seizure of land from the landowning nobles. Historians like Figes have described this situation not as just ‘dual power’, but as a ‘multitude of local power’.

When the anti-war soviets discovered the new Foreign Minister had kept the Tsar’s old war aims – partly because Russia was now dependent upon credit and loans from its allies to avoid bankruptcy - demonstrations forced a new, semi-socialist coalition government into creation. Old revolutionaries now returned to Russia, including one called Lenin, who soon dominated the Bolshevik faction. In his April Theses and elsewhere, Lenin called for the Bolsheviks to shun the Provisional Government and prepare for a new revolution, a view many colleagues openly disagreed with. The first ‘All-Russian Congress of Soviets’ revealed that the socialists were deeply divided over how to proceed, and the Bolsheviks were in a minority.

The July Days

As the war continued the anti-war Bolsheviks found their support growing. On July 3 -5th a confused armed uprising by soldiers and workers in the name of the Soviet failed. This was the ‘July Days’. Historians are divided over who was actually behind the revolt. Pipes has argued it was an attempted coup directed by Bolshevik high command, but Figes has presented a convincing account in his ‘A People’s Tragedy’ which argues that the uprising started when the Provisional Government tried to move a pro-Bolshevik unit of soldiers to the front. They rose up, people followed them, and low-level Bolsheviks and anarchists pushed the rebellion along. The top level Bolsheviks like Lenin refused to either order the seizure of power, or even give the rebellion any direction or blessing, and the crowds milled aimlessly about when they could easily have taken power had someone pointed them in the right direction. Afterward, the government arrested major Bolsheviks, and Lenin fled the country, his reputation as a revolutionary weakened by his lack of readiness.

Shortly after Kerensky became Prime Minister of a new coalition which pulled both left and right as he tried to forge a middle path. Kerensky was notionally a socialist but was in practice closer to the middle class and his presentation and style initially appealed to liberals and socialists alike. Kerensky attacked the Bolsheviks and called Lenin a German agent - Lenin was still in the pay of German forces - and the Bolsheviks were in serious disarray. They could have been destroyed, and hundreds were arrested for treason, but other socialist factions defended them; the Bolsheviks would not be so kind when it was the other way round.

The Right Intervenes?

In August 1917 the long feared right-wing coup appeared to be attempted by General Kornilov who, afraid the soviets would take power, tried to take it instead. However, historians believe that this ‘coup’ was much more complicated, and not really a coup at all. Kornilov did try and convince Kerensky to accept a program of reforms which would have effectively placed Russia under a right wing dictatorship, but he proposed this on behalf of the Provisional Government to protect it against the Soviet, rather than to seize power for himself.

There then followed a catalog of confusions, as a possibly mad intermediary between Kerensky and Kornilov gave the impression that Kerensky had offered dictatorial powers to Kornilov, while at the same time giving the impression to Kerensky that Kornilov was taking power alone. Kerensky took the opportunity to accuse Kornilov of attempting a coup in order to rally support around him, and as the confusion continued Kornilov concluded that Kerensky was a Bolshevik prisoner and ordered troops forward to free him. When the troops arrived in Petrograd they realized nothing was happening and stopped. Kerensky ruined his standing with the right, who were fond of Kornilov, and was fatally weakened by appealing to the left, as he had agreed to the Petrograd Soviet forming a ‘Red Guard’ of 40,000 armed workers to prevent counter-revolutionaries like Kornilov. The Soviet needed the Bolsheviks to do this, as they were the only ones who could command a mass of local soldiers, and were rehabilitated. People believed the Bolsheviks had stopped Kornilov.

Hundreds of thousand went on strike in protest at the lack of progress, radicalized once more by the attempted right-wing coup. The Bolsheviks had now become a party with more support, even as their leaders argued over the right course of action, because they were almost the only ones left arguing for pure soviet power, and because the main socialist parties had been branded failures for their attempts to work with the government. The Bolshevik rallying cry of ‘peace, land, and bread’ was popular. Lenin switched tactics and recognized peasant land seizures, promising a Bolshevik redistribution of land. Peasants now began to swing in behind the Bolsheviks and against the Provisional Government which, composed partly of landholders, was against the seizures. It’s important to stress the Bolsheviks were not supported purely for their policies, but because they seemed to be the soviet answer.

The October Revolution

The Bolsheviks, having persuaded the Petrograd Soviet to create a ‘Military Revolutionary Committee’ (MRC) to arm and organize, decided to seize power after Lenin was able to overrule the majority of party leaders who were against the attempt. But he didn’t set a date. He believed it had to be before elections to the Constituent Assembly gave Russia an elected government he might not be able to challenge, and before the All Russian Congress of Soviets met, so they could dominate it by already having power. Many thought power would come to them if they waited. As Bolshevik supporters traveled among soldiers to recruit them, it became apparent the MRC could call on major military support.

As the Bolsheviks delayed attempting their coup for more discussion, events elsewhere outpaced them when Kerensky’s government finally reacted – triggered by an article in a newspaper where leading Bolsheviks argued against a coup - and tried to arrest Bolshevik and MRC leaders and send Bolshevik army units to the frontlines. The troops rebelled, and the MRC occupied key buildings. The Provisional Government had few troops and these stayed largely neutral, while the Bolsheviks had Trotsky’s Red Guard and the army. Bolshevik leaders, hesitant to act, were forced into acting and hurriedly taking charge of the coup thanks to Lenin’s insistence. In one way, Lenin and the Bolshevik high command had little responsibility for the start of the coup, and Lenin – almost alone – had responsibility for the success at the end by driving the other Bolsheviks on. The coup saw no great crowds like February.

Lenin then announced a seizure of power, and the Bolsheviks tried to influence the Second Congress of Soviets, but found themselves with a majority only after other socialist groups walked out in protest (although this, at least, tied up with Lenin’s plan). It was enough for the Bolsheviks to use the Soviet as a cloak for their coup. Lenin now acted to secure control over the Bolshevik party, which was still divided into factions As socialist groups across Russia seized power the government was arrested. Kerensky fled after his attempts to organize resistance was thwarted; he later taught history in the US. Lenin had effectively backed into power.

The Bolsheviks Consolidate

The now largely Bolshevik Congress of Soviets passed several of Lenin’s new decrees and created the Council of People’s Commissars, a new, Bolshevik, government. Opponents believed the Bolshevik government would swiftly fail and prepared (or rather, failed to prepare) accordingly, and even then there were no military forces at this point to retake power. Elections to the Constituent Assembly were still held, and the Bolsheviks gained only a quarter of the vote and shut it down. The mass of peasants (and to some extent workers) didn’t care about the Assembly as they now had their local soviets. The Bolsheviks then dominated a coalition with the Left SR’s, but these non-Bolsheviks were quickly dropped. The Bolsheviks began to change the fabric of Russian, ending the war, introducing a new secret police, taking over the economy and abolishing much of the Tsarist state.

They began to secure power by a twofold policy, born out of improvisation and gut feeling: concentrate the high reaches of government in the hands of a small dictatorship, and use terror to crush the opposition, while giving the low levels of government entirely over to the new worker’s soviets, soldier’s committees and peasant councils, allowing human hate and prejudice to lead these new bodies into smashing the old structures. Peasants destroyed the gentry, soldiers destroyed the officers, workers destroyed the capitalists. The Red Terror of the next few years, desired by Lenin and guided by the Bolsheviks, was born out of this mass outpouring of hate and proved popular. The Bolsheviks would then go about taking control of the lower levels.

Conclusion

After two revolutions in less than a year, Russia had been transformed from an autocratic empire, through a period of shifting chaos to a notionally socialist, Bolshevik state. Notionally, because the Bolsheviks had a loose grasp on government, with only slight control of the soviets outside major cities, and because quite how their practices were actually socialist is open to debate. As much as they later claimed, the Bolsheviks didn’t have a plan for how to govern Russia, and they were forced into making immediate, pragmatic decisions to hold onto power and keep Russia functioning.

It would take a civil war for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to consolidate their authoritarian power, but their state would be established as the USSR and, following Lenin’s death, taken over by the even more dictatorial and bloodthirsty Stalin. Socialist revolutionaries across Europe would take heart from Russia’s apparent success and agitate further, while much of the world looked at Russia with a mixture of fear and apprehension.